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Incoming Chief Presses Montgomery County on Burial Site Dispute

When Montgomery County Executive-elect Marc Elrich takes office next month, resolving a longtime battle between county officials and a historically Black church over what has been identified as a sacred burial ground counts among his top priorities.

Elrich, an at-large member of the county council member and ardent supporter of efforts to memorialize the burial ground, made known his intentions a day after his electoral victory during a meeting at the Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC) in Kensington.

“We have to recognize that it’s a burial ground and see what’s under there once and for all,” Elrich said. “If there are bodies there, we have to treat it with a higher level of concern. I don’t understand how we have gone this far down the road and not determine that to have this lingering around is an issue.”

At the Nov. 7 meeting, Macedonia Baptist Church members decried HOC Executive Director Stacey Spann’s new proposal for an advisory board, comprised of members of what he called the wider community, that would examine the best means of memorializing Moses African Cemetery.

In his written reply to Spann, Macedonia Pastor Segun Adebayo challenged a narrative that the church had been uncooperative with HOC, saying that the commission rebuffed Macedonia members’ requests to collaborate in the creation of a museum and memorial park on the burial grounds.

Adebayo’s letter, dated Nov. 6, also claimed the commission never confirmed plans for an October joint meeting between HOC, Macedonia members and Regency Centers, the property owner in the neighborhood that includes Moses African Cemetery.

Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, Adebayo’s wife and Macedonia social justice coordinator, said HOC’s actions reveal a hidden agenda to include individuals and organizations hostile to the idea of memorializing cemetery in the conversation.

As she recounted the events of Nov. 7, Coleman-Adebayo mentioned seeing other people, including HOC employees, speak out against the agency’s duplicity.

“There were other people in that room from a workers union protesting the ill treatment they get from HOC management,” Coleman-Adebayo said. “The real victims are people in our community who are disregarded and disrespected by institutions such as HOC. We’ve uncovered much more than an agency. It’s clear that we’ll get the memorial and park. Now we want to make sure HOC and other agencies in Montgomery County are better than how we found it.”

HOC’s public information officer didn’t return The Informer’s requests for comment.

Despite county officials’ claims otherwise, members of Macedonia, a historically Black religious institution located on River Road in Bethesda, less than a mile from Moses African Cemetery, said an email obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request confirmed that hundreds of remains are buried there.

In 2016, Macedonia members lobbied HOC, the Montgomery County Council, and County Executive Ike Leggett to stop development firm Equity One’s construction of a parking garage on Moses African Cemetery. The landmark in question sits behind Westwood Towers on River Road, part of a once-thriving African-American community that existed between Reconstruction and the late 1950s.

At the end of 2017, HOC, the county’s affordable housing provider, purchased the burial site from Equity One. Macedonia members called the deal a veiled attempt to deter their movement. They have since pressured HOC officials to reveal their plans for the cemetery by attending, testifying and protesting at HOC meetings on the first Wednesday of every month.

Elrich questioned the commission’s delay in determining the future of the burial site, saying that the conflict must be resolved between the commission, Regency, Macedonia and no one else.

“I’m not interested in making sure [HOC] can bring more voting members to the table,” Elrich said. “I don’t want it to be done that way. I don’t see a basis for it. No one has said anything about it for the last two years, and to discover that we need to enlarge the table would be stunning.”

Elrich’s involvement in Moses African Cemetery follows an ongoing battle with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission to recognize Farm Road, a historic African-American community in Sandy Spring that disappeared on county maps.

Farm Road residents, some of whom descend from the first freedmen of Montgomery County, don’t have official addresses and can’t obtain building permits to maintain their properties.

Coleman-Adebayo extolled Elrich’s recent move, saying his first act as executive-elect shows other politicians that they can support Black communities in the early days of their tenure.

“Marc Elrich demonstrated at Macedonia,” she said. “As a council member, he sat down with us at that table and said he was on board. Now as county executive-elect, his position is consistent. Elrich’s first act was to support the November 7 protest at the HOC and offer to mediate this crisis.

“We believe he will continue to support the just demands of our community,” Coleman-Adebayo said. “We believe that since we have such an important ally, more pressure has been applied to HOC.”

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