Tensions over a long-vanished African American cemetery in Bethesda turned into a confrontation Tuesday evening at a meeting of Montgomery County’s NAACP branch.
County Council President Roger Berliner forcefully refuted charges from a community activist that planning officials attempted to cover up the existence of the post-Civil War cemetery, which documents indicate was located north of the Westwood Tower Apartments on Westbard Avenue. The site, which was paved over decades ago for use as a parking lot, is in the middle of an area targeted for redevelopment by Regency Centers, a Florida-based company that also owns the Westwood Shopping Center.
Members of Macedonia Baptist Church on River Road want to see the site excluded from construction plans because of the cemetery that was once there and any remains that may still be underground. They are calling for the cemetery to be memorialized with a museum that documents the African American community that existed in Westbard until the 1950s. Berliner and County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) have called for the dispute to go to private mediation, which could begin next week.
“We are demanding justice. What we’ve seen time and time again is obfuscation,” said Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, the church’s social justice chair. “We’ve seen people blocking our attempts to really get justice for our ancestors.”
Coleman-Adebayo, a former Environmental Protection Agency official who won a discrimination settlement against the agency in a 2000 whistleblowing case, has led protests at council and Planning Board meetings over the cemetery issue.
Her most explosive charge is that county Planning Director Gwen Wright led a “a massive coverup” of the cemetery’s existence in 2015 during the board’s review of Westbard development plans.
Coleman-Adebayo said emails obtained through a public-records request support her allegations. But a review of the emails by The Washington Post showed nothing beyond routine discussion among Wright and her staff about when and how to brief board members.
Planning and parks department officials, who first uncovered evidence of the cemetery during research conducted in 2014, told the board about it in December 2015. The board later required Regency to remove the site from its development plans until a study is completed.
“When are you going to call for an investigation of Gwen Wright and the coverup that’s occurred around the cemetery?” Coleman-Adebayo asked Berliner at the NAACP meeting.
Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), a likely 2018 candidate for county executive who was invited by the civil rights group to speak about county affairs at its monthly meeting in Rockville, aggressively defended Wright.
“I will speak plainly. You and I disagree about Gwen Wright. . . . This is a good public servant,” Berliner said.
He said Coleman-Adebayo’s criticism was especially unfair given that Wright served as a senior planning official for Alexandria during the public-private effort to memorialize and rededicate the Alexandria Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery, a historic African American site that was restored and memorialized during construction of the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
“I totally support justice, but I am not going to participate in tearing down the reputation of good people who mean well and have actually made sure that our planners understand this issue and raised it explicitly,” Berliner said.
When Berliner left the meeting, Coleman-Adebayo followed him, and the debate continued briefly in a light rain outside the Carver Educational Services Center.
“If you become county executive, you don’t keep somebody like Gwen Wright on board,” Coleman-Adebayo said.
“I don’t believe Gwen Wright is a racist,” Berliner responded.
Coleman-Adebayo brought up Wright’s decision not to hire two prominent black anthropologists to study the cemetery site. Wright has said she and the two academics, Rachel Watkins of American University and Michael Blakey of William & Mary, could not agree on compensation or the scope of the work to be done.
“Gwen Wright decided that she would not have anything to do with them. She wanted an all-white staff on this issue,” Coleman-Adebayo said.
Berliner turned and walked toward his car.