Macedonia Baptist Church members, locals and others gather for a rally, march and protest at the historic African American church on River Road on Feb. 12. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Tim Bonds first heard the stories about the bones in the late 1960s, from construction workers who came to his father’s gas station in Bethesda for a cold drink or a quick game of craps.

Change was stirring along this quiet stretch of River Road, home to a century-old community founded by freed slaves and known today as Westbard. The crews were excavating the future site of a 15-story apartment and office tower across from the new Westwood Shopping Center.

“When they found a body,” recalled Bonds, 57, “they’d blow a whistle and they’d shut the job down.”

It seemed to him that the whistle blew pretty often. 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 more quickly. He and his pals sometimes slipped over to the site hoping for a glimpse of something ghoulish. But they never saw anything.

For a half-century, such stories were mostly forgotten. Then plans for new construction led to fresh details about the cemetery that historians say once stood on land behind the high-rise, and painful questions about what may have happened to the remains buried there.

The issue has pitted Montgomery County officials and the prospective developer against a tiny Baptist church whose members fear history will once again be bulldozed, this time to make way for an aboveground parking garage near proposed high-rises, townhouses and a revamped shopping center.

The county and the developer, New York-based Equity One, have promised to work with the community and say no plans will be approved for the site until an archaeological investigation is complete. But members of Macedonia Baptist Church, the last standing vestige of the former black enclave, want to halt the process until Equity One agrees to include a museum about the former African American enclave in its project.

“It should be a place of reflection and a place for people to meditate about how important it is to preserve human rights,” said Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, head of Macedonia’s social justice ministry. “We need to memorialize this experience so that our children have the opportunity to learn from our mistakes.”

‘Like a lost colony’

The neighborhood that would become Westbard was home in the late 19th century to African Americans who had worked on Montgomery County’s farms and tobacco plantations since before the Civil War.

By the 1950s, according to research by the Little Falls Watershed Alliance, about 30 families lived on the sloping terrain by the old Georgetown branch of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which would later become the Capital Crescent Trail. They farmed, worked as laborers or domestics in the nearby white neighborhood of Somerset, or toiled at Bethesda Blue Granite Co.’s quarry near Willett Branch.

“What I tell my grandkids, it was just like a lost colony,” said Harvey M. Matthews Sr., 72, whose family farm was located on the site of what is now the Kenwood Station Shopping Center, home to a Whole Foods, Bethesda Bagels and other upscale staples.

“When I travel around the country and people ask where I was born, I tell them, ‘Bethesda,’ ” added Matthews, who recalls playing hide-and-seek at the cemetery as a boy. “And they say, ‘There were black people in Bethesda?’ ”

There were also ballfields, a segregated elementary school and a tavern called the Sugar Bowl. And, according to research conducted by the county in preparing a new land-use plan for Westbard — deeds, state archives, the Congressional Record and old newspaper accounts — there was, at one time, a cemetery.

Historians with the Montgomery County Parks and Planning departments cite a 1911 tax assessment that shows the purchase of a one-acre parcel west of River Road, which includes what is now the parking lot behind Westwood Tower.

The buyer was White's Tabernacle No. 39, a chapter of a black fraternal society called the Ancient Order of the Sons and Daughters, Brothers and Sisters of Moses. A notation on the assessment says "used as a graveyard," and newspaper clippings say that James Loughborough, a prominent land owner and Confederate veteran, presented the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners in 1911 with a petition opposing a black burial ground at River Road.

At around the same time it purchased the River Road land, White’s Tabernacle sold a cemetery it owned in the Fort Reno section of Tenleytown. A 1914 Washington Post article mentioned a bill pending before the House of Representatives to allow disinterment of the Tenleytown graves. A later article said the site contained 192 bodies. In a 2015 report marked “confidential,” county senior planner Sandra Youla said the River Road site “likely contained remains disinterred” from the Tenleytown cemetery.

The society sold the cemetery in 1959, around the time that the African American families of Westbard began to sell their land and scatter. Historians have been unable to document what happened to the graves.

River Road, meanwhile, started to boom. One of the most active builders was Laszlo Tauber, a Hungarian Jewish surgeon and Holocaust survivor who made much of his fortune constructing office space to lease to the federal government. He headed a syndicate of other physician-investors that bought land in Westbard.

In 1966, Tauber developed plans for the high-rise, designed by prominent D.C. architect John d’Epagnier. The upper floors would be apartments, the lower levels the offices of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

D'Epagnier died in 1977. In 2015, county parks department researchers borrowed documents about the Westwood Tower project from his son Arnold, as part of their work on the land-use plan. On the day senior historian Jamie Kuhns and cultural resources manager Joey Lampl returned the materials, Arnold D'Epagnier offered them his own memories of when the high-rise was built.

According to notes written by Kuhns and Lampl after the conversation, d’Epagnier recalled riding a pickup truck with his father and a family priest, “taking burlap bags with bones” from the construction site to Howard Chapel, a historically black cemetery in rural northern Montgomery.

The priest and young Arnold fished in a nearby creek while his father dug a makeshift grave, according to the notes, which are on file at the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. The architect buried the remains, and the priest blessed them.

D’Epagnier recanted his story a year later, as Macedonia reviewed the county’s historical findings and began pushing to memorialize the cemetery. “I cannot say with any certainty that my vague recollections . . . are in any way accurate,” he said in an email to Lampl. “I recommend that you not consider any of those details as part of your work on this matter.”

In an email to The Post, he wrote, “I truly regret ever casually trying to recall my memories from so long ago.”

Tauber died in 2002, at age 87. A spokesman for the charitable foundation run by his children, Ingrid and Alfred Tauber, said they have no recollection of their father mentioning a gravesite on the land his group had purchased.

All company documents related to Westwood Tower were shredded in 2015, 10 years after Tauber sold the building to a New York real estate investor. Equity One bought it in 2013, for $25 million.

Unanswerable questions

Quiet disposal of remains was illegal but not unusual in the 1960s, experts in cemetery restoration say, especially in places where countryside became suburb and suburb became city.

In Alexandria, the original Contrabands and Freedmen's Cemetery was first disturbed by 19th-century brickmakers digging for clay. Roads and a gas station were built later. Construction of the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge — a federally funded project subject to preservation laws — led to the restoration of the cemetery and creation of a three-acre memorial dedicated in 2014.

While the Westbard plan does not use federal dollars, it coincides with a surge of interest in recognizing such sacred places, and, perhaps, a new willingness by governments to preserve them.

Equity One Executive Vice President William Brown said the firm stands ready to cooperate with the county and the church: “We’re not trying to do anything to desecrate remains or cover anything up.”

The firm is close to hiring the Ottery Group, a cultural resource consulting firm, to examine the parking lot for evidence of graves. Montgomery Planning Director Gwen Wright said she is speaking with two prominent anthropologists about serving as independent peer reviewers of Ottery’s work.

Officials promise no construction will be approved without a full investigation, including ground-penetrating radar. If remains are located, police will be notified, as state law requires. County leaders say they will do what they can to pay homage to the site, perhaps as part of the proposed restoration of Willett Branch, the creek near the site that was lined with concrete in the 1950s to serve as a storm sewer.

But Macedonia Baptist Church members remain skeptical, saying they have been kept at arms length in their efforts to honor what Coleman-Adebayo calls “a battlefield of memory.”

At a planning board meeting Thursday, the Rev. Segun Adebayo, Macedonia’s interim pastor, said church members want the county to pay for the cemetery study instead of Equity One. “The old saying is still true,” said Adebayo, who is married to Coleman-Adebayo. “ ‘He who pays the piper calls the tune.’ ”

Wright said her agency has no money to pay for such a study, which could be costly. She added that it is customary for the land owner to foot the bill.

Adebayo also called for a criminal investigation if test results show that graves were disturbed and remains were moved. “Where did they go? Was it legal? Was it moral?”

Earlier this month, members of Macedonia and neighboring River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation sang spirituals and placed flowers at the parking lot. Then the group moved to the sycamore trees near the Whole Foods parking lot, which Matthews said are all that remain of his family’s farm.

“Three dogs, two horses, chickens and pigs,” Matthews said, fighting tears. “This is my yard. I was here first.”

With key decision-makers long deceased, a full accounting of what happened at the site is unlikely. No records have been located to confirm whether remains were found years ago, or to document the relocation of any graves after the cemetery was sold.

“The desecration of this community’s historic burial ground decades ago was certainly a tragedy that should have been prevented,” Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), whose district includes Westbard, wrote to planning board chair Casey Anderson earlier this month. “I do not have the historical knowledge of the events that led to that act, and perhaps neither do you. But we do have an opportunity to do things differently today and moving forward.”

Bonds, who rents the land for his two service stations from Equity One, will lose his lease if and when the company starts building. Before he leaves, he said, he’d welcome a resolution to the childhood mystery that unfolded down the street.

“I’d kind of like to see them find it,” he said of the cemetery. “Everybody who’s lost should be found. I believe in history.”

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