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KENSINGTON – The best way to memorialize Moses Cemetery, the historically black cemetery that lies beneath the parking area of the Westwood Tower apartments in Bethesda, continues to be hotly debated, despite efforts by area church members and the Housing Opportunities Commission of Montgomery County (HOC).
Three people were cited for disorderly conduct for disrupting the HOC’s Feb. 6 meeting when they refused to stop singing civil rights era songs as commission members tried to proceed with their agenda.
Rev. Segun Adebayo of the Macedonia Baptist Church, Somerset Mayor Jeffrey Slavin and Lucille Perez were cited after police escorted them out of the meeting room.
During the HOC’s January meeting, four protestors were cited. They have yet to receive a court date for their hearing.
The protestors want the HOC to name them the sole keepers of a three-quarter acre of land at Westwood Tower’s parking lot, known as parcel 175, where the bones of African Americans, many of whom were slaves, are buried.
HOC commissioners agree that the former cemetery should be memorialized, but believe a group of stakeholders consisting of officials from the county council, county park and planning officials and members of Macedonia Baptist Church as well as the River Road African American community should work together on the project.
The HOC sent a letter Jan. 30 to County Executive Marc Elrich asking him to convene a meeting “so that we might move the discussion forward,” noted Stacy Spann, HOC executive director.
“Rightfully, this history should be honored so that it is neither forgotten nor repeated,” the HOC wrote in its letter to Elrich.
The HOC wants to be a member of any group the county convenes but has no intention of leading nor convening the meeting itself, Spann explained, noting that the HOC is “in the business of housing,” not creating memorials.
Elrich told the Sentinel he has spoken with Spann and texted Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, chair of the social justice ministry at Macedonia Baptist Church, about setting up a meeting, but no date has been set.
“I am not going to put it together until I get a better feel for how it will work,” Elrich said.
Meanwhile, tensions again appeared high between both the two sides during the Feb. 6 meeting although Spann said, “We want to continue being good partners.” He also said there was “nothing nefarious” about what HOC has done.
But the two dozen protestors who regularly attend HOC meetings believe the HOC is anything but a good partner.
“HOC has continued to desecrate” the land, said Coleman-Adebayo.
She likened HOC leading the memorialization to putting the late Alabama Gov. George Wallace in charge of integration.
“I will come back every month until the deed of the land will be conveyed to the Macedonia Baptist Church,” she said. “We are going to continue to fight for this. This is the heart of white supremacy.”
“We will tell our story and our history. We can lead ourselves,”added Rev. Adebayo, her husband.
Adebayo called taking care of the bones of his ancestors “our sacred duty.”
Bill Cook, who videoed the public meeting, spoke out against the commissioners. “I am puzzled why you would allow yourself to be villains in this story,” he said. “As far as I can tell, money is more important to you.”
Also speaking at the meeting was Robin Ficker, who unsuccessfully ran for county executive in last November’s election.
He urged the HOC to treat those buried there “with dignity and respect,” adding, “That’s the Maryland way,” he said.
“We don’t want to go the other way. The other way is where you treat your ancestors with derision. That’s the Virginia way.”
Following the meeting, HOC sent out a press release noting its support for the memorialization of Moses Cemetery. “HOC supports memorialization, and we are hopeful that we can work collaboratively to move the dialogue forward,” wrote Commission Vice Chairman Rick Nelson.
“The sooner we can return to a discourse that acknowledges our common ground, the sooner we can move forward with developing a plan to memorialize Moses Cemetery and the community’s rich and diverse history.”
Spann explained that while the HOC does not “have a particular opinion about what’s appropriate” for a memorial, he would not recommend that the HOC turn over the deed to parcel 175 to members of the church, explaining that this land is the only access for Westwood Tower residents to access the parking area.
“I understand this is frustrating,” Spann said.
When asked why commission members don’t respond to questions posed by the protestors during HOC meetings, Spann replied, “It’s a community forum. It’s not for commissioners to engage in a back and forth.”
However, he said, “It’s not as if we are ignoring them.”