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Activists still contest fate of historic African-American burial site

While Westbard residents won their fight to stop a new development along Westbard Avenue in Bethesda, the fight for many continues, as the future of a historic burial ground on the property remains in limbo.

For months, residents from Westbard and members of the Macedonia Baptist Church, located on River Road in Bethesda, have lobbied the Housing Opportunities Commission – now owners of the property – not to develop on the site of the historic African-American burial ground.

While officials from the HOC have promised to not develop on the site of the burial ground some members of the Macedonia Baptist Church and Westbard residents said they do not trust HOC’s promise not to do so.

“We want the cemetery to be considered sacred because our ancestors are located there,” said Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, director of the social justice ministry at the Macedonia Baptist Church. “They were the first generation of freed Africans in Montgomery County.”

Every month, residents of Westbard and members of the Macedonia Baptist Church have gone to the HOC to voice their concerns during the community forum, which is open to the public, during HOC’s monthly meetings. Last week was different, as several candidates for County Council joined Bethesda residents and Macedonia Baptist Church members in calling for the historic preservation of the burial site.

“We used the community forum as an opportunity to interact with the HOC commissioners to express our concern,” Coleman-Adebayo.

The burial site is a particularly sensitive issue for Bethesda’s African-American community, as the Montgomery County Planning Department rediscovered the burial site while a developer was going through the process of building condos on the site. The burial site was unknown to the developer at the time of the purchase, since the site of the burial ground is now a parking lot. That means bodies may have possibly been moved or desecrated.

In December, the Housing Opportunity Commission bought the property for about $20 million in the hope of putting in its place a home for more affordable housing in Bethesda. The Commission promised not to develop the site for the time being.

“We understand the sensitivity of the issue in relation to the history of this area. Moving forward, HOC will continue to listen to the concerns of the Westbard community. The Commission has no plans to pursue development, and consequently, no plans to pursue a historical/archaeological evaluation of the property at this time,” according to a written statement from the Housing Opportunities Commission.

Coleman-Adebayo and members of the Macedonia Baptist Church have lobbied the HOC and County to give the site a historical designation and to build a museum honoring the early history of African-Americans in Bethesda.

Months ago, mediation between members of the Macedonia Baptist Church and County Executive Ike Leggett broke down, after Leggett offered to have the County pay for an archaeologist to examine the site for remains. The discussion broke down as Coleman-Adebayo said the church should select the archaeologist to examine the site, believing the County’s selection would be biased

Leggett said if human remains were found at the site, it would be up to a state agency, not the County, to decide what happens next.

@neal_earley

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