After an intense and contentious battle over development plans for the Westwood Shopping Center around the community of River Road in Bethesda, Maryland, the black-owned Macedonia Baptist Church has lost its claim to ancient slave burial grounds to New York-based developer Equity One.
After an open hearing before the Montgomery County Council on Thursday, Feb. 23, council members sided with Equity One and are only giving Macedonia Baptist Church members eight weeks to figure something out.
The result left many in the community questioning the process and whether the hearing truly had any purpose.
“Where was [Montgomery County Executive] Ike Leggett in all of this?” said Macedonia’s new pastor, the Rev. Segun Adebayo, who was inaugurated Feb. 24. “In Nigeria there is a huge culture of respect when regarding the dead. It is believed that there is more honor in death, so I find it difficult to understand Equity One’s position.
“We have sent many correspondences to the county executive and on Monday [Feb. 28] I will personally get in touch with Leggett,” Adebayo said. “[Leggett] is a black man and someone coming from his decade is fully aware of what is truly going on and shouldn’t need a formal request to act.”
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, a forerunner in the effort to preserve the burial grounds and have a museum built to honor the history of the community and the legacy of her ancestors, also questioned Leggett’s involvement.
“When we left the council on Thursday we were all under the impression that we had won the case,” she said. “People were cheering for us and it was a very exciting day. However, when I woke up on Saturday and began to read the Bethesda Magazine, one of their main articles explored how the council had voted in favor of Equity One.
Like many, Coleman-Adebayo said she was unaware the council had even taken a vote.
“I remained at the council for the duration of the time and I never witnessed or even heard an official vote ever taken,” she said. “We have reached out to Ike Leggett many times who is over this jurisdiction during the duration of this entire case with no reply. [We] just want to know, what is going on?”
Judy Stiles, a public information officer for the Montgomery County government’s executive branch, told The Informer that Leggett had never received any correspondence from church members regarding the issue, except for a letter that was delivered earlier this month. Asked if Leggett had responded to the letter, Stiles said, “not yet.”
Neither Equity One not the Montgomery County Council replied to numerous requests for comment.
Harvey Matthews, longtime resident and church trustee whose family helped form the River Road community, said he was heartbroken by the series of events.
“I grew up here and can still remember playing games as a child in the old cemetery,” he said. “I never knew then that I was literally playing over top of dead ancestors, but now that I know, we have to do something about this. Just think if it was your white mother or Jewish ancestors lying beneath rubble with no proper resting place.
“I have to say, one thing that really touched my heart the most was the testimony of one little white 8th-grade girl who spoke candidly about never knowing that a black community had even ever existed in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase area,” Matthews said. “She went on to explain the fact that this is history that she and her brother should be taught in school and that a museum would help them to learn the history that they have been robbed of.”
Many say that this is not the first time this same scenario has been brought into question. One resident recounts hearing some years back of crew members throwing dead bodies down slopes during construction.
“When they found a body, they’d blow a whistle, and they’d shut the job down,” said Tim Bonds, 57, who recalled the whistle blowing fairly often.
Bonds said he remembers the men talking about human remains being pushed back under the dirt, down a steep slope toward a storm sewer, so excavation could resume quicker. He and his pals sometimes slipped over to the site hoping for a glimpse of something ghoulish, but never saw anything.
The centuries-old community founded by freed slaves, known today as Westbard, once was the home to over 30 families who lived on the sloping terrain by the old Georgetown branch of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which would later become the Capital Crescent Trail.
If not farming, they worked as laborers or domestics in the nearby white neighborhood of Somerset, or toiled at Bethesda Blue Granite Co.’s quarry near Willett Branch.
In a statement issued to The Informer, the NAACP’s Montgomery County branch said it would provide whatever support available to help rectify the injustice.