KENSINGTON – County police evicted four people from January’s Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC) meeting for disrupting the session as they tried to convince commission members to memorialize a historically black cemetery that lies beneath the parking area of the Westwood Tower apartments in Bethesda.
After receiving a citation for disorderly conduct, Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, chair of the social justice ministry at Macedonia Baptist Church, which has been spearheading a two-year quest to have Moses Cemetery memorialized, declared it was “a great honor” to be a non-violent resister.
The land by River Road was used in the early-1900s for a burial ground but was sold in the 1950s to construct the 212-apartment complex.
HOC has leased the property since 1977, eventually purchasing it in December 2017 for $20 million. The commission uses rental income to cover costs.
Since realizing their ancestors, many of whom were slaves, were buried on the site, members of Macedonia Baptist Church have tried to set up a memorial there.
Church and community members, about 50 of whom attended the Jan. 9 HOC meeting, want HOC to convey the property to the church.
“It’s time to let our ancestors rest. They were treated like animals when they were alive, and now they are being treated like trash,” Coleman-Adebayo said.
The church “is the only institution that can be trusted” to do the right thing for the dead, she said.
About a dozen people spoke out during the audience-participation portion of the meeting. Throughout that time, commission members listened but did not respond to comments.
“You sit silently,” said Lynn Pekkanen, one of the four cited who will have to appear in court at a yet-undetermined date.
She accused the commission of refusing to meet separately with the activists and of having “incomplete, false” information on its website.
“You don’t seem to realize you are the villains in this story,” said Bill Cook, who videotaped the meeting. “I don’t see how you can sleep at night.”
“Why can’t you make a written agreement with the church?” asked Robert Stubberfield, who then proceeded to read a poem he had written about those buried beneath the parking area.
Ingrid Goldstrom urged the commissioners “to show that in Montgomery County, black lives matter in life and death.”
Some of the activists attending the meeting had hoped to be arrested, Coleman-Adebayo said.
Pekkanen said she had contacted the county police prior to the meeting and asked what would happen if they were arrested.
During the meeting, when the activists began chanting and singing so loudly the commissioners could not conduct other business, Police Sgt. Chris Hackley warned the disrupters three times before finally demanding they leave the meeting room. The four who refused to be quiet were escorted to another room, where they received their citations.
“I think what happened today was really important. This was an act of conscience,” Coleman-Adebayo said.
“We are going to win this struggle,” she added, claiming that newly elected County Executive Marc Elrich was on their side.
Efforts to reach Elrich were not successful.
According to an HOC staff report, there “are no plans for further development at this time” at the site in the Westbard section of Bethesda. Westbard is about one mile from the D.C. boundary line and less than two miles from the commercial areas of Friendship Heights and Bethesda.
The staff report stated that “HOC supports memorialization of the cemetery and the history of the former community.”
However, rather than allowing church members and their followers to have sole control over the creation of some sort of memorialization, HOC prefers to work with a stakeholders committee that would include HOC, church members and the county’s parks department.
The report further noted that HOC will not give the land to the church, “as it is the only means of access to two levels of the Westwood Tower parking garage.”
According to Tim Willard, who ran unsuccessfully for County Council on the Green Party ticket and was one of the activists at the meeting, during the construction of Westwood Towers, the gravestones were dumped into a pit dug on the property in a common, unmarked area.
That area is located beneath a parking area.