To the chagrin of activists vying for sole control, and a key role in memorializing, what’s believed to be an African-American burial site in Bethesda, Maryland, the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC) continued its efforts to include other parties in the discussion about the plot of land behind Westwood Towers on River Road.
During the HOC’s most recent public meeting, commissioners revealed the Maryland-National Capital Parks & Planning Commission as a partner in determining the future of Moses African Cemetery, which has been estimated to hold the remains of nearly 500 formerly enslaved Africans who formed a vibrant community along River Road during the Reconstruction Era.
“We recognize the [county’s] nasty history and the community of freed slaves who made their homes [on River Road],” HOC Executive Director Stacy Spann said a day after the HOC’s Feb. 6 meeting at its Kensington headquarters.
Since HOC, the county agency charged with fulfilling affordable housing needs, purchased Moses African Cemetery from a private developer more than a year ago, members of the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition (BACC), a group that includes congregants of nearby Macedonia Baptist Church, have stormed monthly HOC meetings in search for answers about how commissioners would pay homage to the hundreds of decadents.
BACC launched their campaign with the goal of securing a transfer of the deed to the land on which Moses African Cemetery sits to Macedonia, a remnant of the vibrant Black community that developed on River Road from the 1860s until the 1950s, when legions of Black families lost their homes. Residents allege that, years later, developers paved over what they knew to be a burial site.
In the weeks before the HOC made known their decision to partner with the Parks & Planning Commission, Spann met with Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich.
In November, a day after his electoral victory, Elrich attended an HOC meeting where he responded to Spann’s announcement of a community advisory board with a pledge to serve as a mediator in the discussion that he only wanted to involve HOC and BACC.
While he didn’t directly respond to a text inquiry, that followed an unanswered phone call, about Parks & Planning’s involvement, Elrich confirmed that he asked Spann for a site layout of the site in question in advance of a community meeting, the date of which has yet to be determined.
Spann, however, hasn’t wavered in his desire to allow more people to weigh in on the specifics of Moses African Cemetery’s memorialization.
“That’s the entire community’s history, [but] there are certain folks who think that others should not be involved,” he said. “I can’t define the timeline, but we’re ready to move toward memorialization and figure out who’s participating.”
At the Feb. 6 meeting, a white Takoma Park resident, who prayed for people buried at Moses African Cemetery, and The Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip-Hop Caucus counted among those who gave impassioned testimony in support of preserving Black history.
Shortly after, toward the end of the public comments portion, a sergeant with the Montgomery County Police Department arrested three BACC members, including Macedonia Pastor Segun Adebayo and congregant Lucy Perez, who continued chanting and singing “We Shall Overcome” with signs in hand, even after repeated requests to stop.
Minutes before her arrest, Perez, a mother who lives in Montgomery County, explained what she described as the correlation between a lack of knowledge about ancestral history and a person’s self-confidence.
“I’ve raised a young Black man in Montgomery County and I never knew about the rich heritage of River Road and Moses Cemetery” she said in her address to commissioners. “As a pediatrician, I know the lifelong damage of devaluing and belittling someone. I have looked in your faces. We have substantiated quite a body of evidence that shows how damaging it is to do what you continue to do without explanation.”
Perez’s arrest followed that of four other BACC members, including Macedonia’s social justice coordinator Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, during HOC’s January meeting, an outcome that HOC denied in a public statement.
Coleman-Adebayo, who also testified on Feb. 6, remained steadfast in a commitment to Macedonia gaining absolute control of Moses African Cemetery.
“I will keep coming back until the deeds to the land is conveyed to Macedonia,” Coleman-Adebayo said in her public testimony.
She later announced plans to lead a national boycott PNC Bank and Union Bank, both of which have a relationship with the HOC, if HOC continues what she described as its private negotiations.
“I have heard the talk that they’re dedicated to memorialization but for more than two years after Macedonia established that Moses African Cemetery lies under the Westwood parking lot, HOC has shown they have no plans,” Coleman-Adebayo said. “You never had nor will you have legitimate interest in Moses African Cemetery. Macedonia will not accept any contingency that we do not participate in.”