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County Council Hopefuls Voice Support for Memorializing Historic Westbard Cemetery Site

Candidates urge housing agency to preserve burial ground under apartment parking lot

Candidates and community members showed up at the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission on Wednesday.

Candidates and community members showed up at the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission on Wednesday.

BETHANY RODGERS

A group of candidates for Montgomery County Council spoke up Wednesday in support of memorializing the site of a long lost African-American cemetery in Bethesda.

The burial ground a short distance from River Road in Westbard is partially covered by a parking lot for apartments owned by the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission, and the political hopefuls said it’s time for the agency to redress past wrongs.

“African-American, Latino and Asian communities have been here in Montgomery County for decades, sometimes generations. But their long presence, and in cases like River Road, their very existences have been virtually erased from county memory and from the narrative of the county’s identity and history,” said Brandy Brooks, who’s running for an at-large council seat. “This didn’t happen by accident.”

Joining Brooks in speaking at the HOC meeting were two other at-large candidates, Ashwani Jain and Robert Dyer, and four candidates for the council’s District 1 seat—Jim McGee, Meredith Wellington, Ana Sol Gutierrez and Bill Cook.

The rivals showed up to stand alongside members of the Macedonia Baptist Church, a congregation on River Road that has been calling on officials to preserve the cemetery and establish a museum about the black community that existed in Westbard. Church members have spent more than a year rallying other residents and civil rights activists to their cause, organizing marches and demonstrations to make their voices heard.

Debate over the site emerged during discussion of the Westbard Sector Plan, a 2016 document that charts the course for development in the neighborhood in coming decades.

County planners have researched the history of the site, which an African-American benevolent association bought in 1911 for a burial ground. In the 1950s, the land was sold, and it is now partially covered by a parking lot for Westwood Tower.

The Westwood Tower property until recently was owned by a developer looking to transform the area, and church members were concerned about potential disruption of the Moses African Cemetery site on the property. In December, the HOC purchased the Westwood Tower property in a $20 million transaction.

Now, church members and advocates are asking the housing agency and owners of a neighboring property believed to contain part of the burial site to commit to a historical preservation.

“Don’t let the reality of Moses African Cemetery remain buried under the asphalt along Willett Branch creek,” McGee said Wednesday. “You have a rare power. You cannot raise the dead, but you can raise the memories of the dead. And I am asking you to do exactly that, that you protect, preserve and memorialize the Moses African Cemetery.”

Gutierrez, a Maryland delegate, suggested that officials could find state funding or grant money to commemorate the site.

Commission members listened quietly as the candidates and others spoke about Moses African Cemetery but did not make any comments about the burial site.

However, the HOC has released a written statement on the Westwood Tower property.

“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 statement reads. “The Commission has no plans to pursue development, and consequently no plans to pursue a historical/archaeological evaluation of the property at this time.”

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at bethany.rodgers@bethesdamagazine.com.
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