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Community comes together to support Potomac woman trying to restore historic Black cemetery forgotten by government

The Montgomery County government had no idea the cemetery was there when it auctioned the land in 1975 for $162 over delinquent taxes.

POTOMAC, Md. — Piece by piece Cherisse Crawford is repairing the past, by uncovering what had been lost for decades.

Union Wesley Methodist Church cemetery in Potomac is filled with an estimated 100 graves of former enslaved people and freed Blacks who were members of the historic church.

“My great, great, great grandfather was the very first person buried at this cemetery,” Crawford told a WUSA9 reporter as she picked up trash at 150-year-old cemetery. “It’s been a long, long journey; a 15-month journey after contacting you.”

A rain-soaked day in February 2023 could not stop Crawford from showing WUSA9 what had become of the site.

“It’s a dump,” she said that day. “It’s been used as a dump. Very disrespectful. Hurtful to see.”

The Montgomery County government had no idea the cemetery was there when it auctioned the land in 1975 for $162 over delinquent taxes. The developer, Saul Joseph, never did anything with the land and it eventually turned into a dumping ground.

When Crawford discovered her relatives were buried here, she spent months asking Montgomery County for help restoring it. When they didn’t answer her calls, she came to WUSA9.

“I think back, I look at that story, I never thought I would be here today,” Crawford said as she broke down.

On a sunny Saturday in May, Crawford was not at the cemetery alone. There was a father and son team from Glenstone, as well as Brian Crane, an archeologist from the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Office.

“So, there’s a plate there,” Crane said as he bent down over a grave marker. “And the person’s name, dates of their life would have been there.”

Volunteers from Capitol Fence, which provided free fencing to protect the cemetery, and Jose Mendoza, an Eagle Scout who decided the cemetery restoration would be his service project, also joined Crawford that Saturday.

“I was expecting to be like the only person my age here,” Mendoza said. “And you can see that is not the case at all. There are people here form entirely different age groups.”

Okechukwu Iweala, who pulled his car over when he spotted WUSA9 first interviewing Crawford all those months ago, was also on hand.

“This is a beautiful transformation,” Iweala. “I’ve seen so many individuals here hauling out loads of tree trunks, debris plastics, tires, fences, wires. So, you know, it looks much different. And obviously, with more support from the county, it can really go far.”

An estimated 30 volunteers showed up, including neighbors from down the street and the Potomac couple who inherited the land from Jospeh after the developer passed away. “We spent so many decades trying to get the county to realize this was a cemetery and try to do something with it,” said Saul Jospeh’s son, Jeff.
“I think this family and this church need to be respected and their heritage needs to be protected,” added his wife, Eileen. “And that’s what’s happening here.”

Crawford knowns there is still so much more to do.

“I want to put a stone and I want to have names engraved in the stone,” Crawford said of her vision for the Union Wesley Methodist Church cemetery.

But she now knows she won’t be doing it alone.

“I want to put benches where people can come, meditate, reflect and feel close to their ancestors,” she continued. “It’s going to be beautiful.”

On Monday, the Montgomery County Highway Department brought heavy equipment to haul out even more trees and shrubs and debris, while making sure to work around the grave sites themselves, all marked by small flags.

Crawford said she is overjoyed the county is finally helping with this project, after ignoring her pleas for so long.

Source:  wusa9

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