HALF A century ago, an African American community just off River Road in Bethesda was displaced when developers bought the residents’ land to construct condo complexes and shopping centers. Now the descendants of those men and women worry someone is about to build atop their history again.
Tiny Macedonia Baptist Church, whose congregation includes members of the black community in Bethesda's Westbard neighborhood, has caused a big stir in response to Montgomery County's approval of a redevelopment application. The property owner, Florida-based Regency Centers, plans to construct an above-ground garage on a plot of land thought to have housed an African American cemetery. The church wants to install a museum and memorial instead.
Regency has contracted with a firm to conduct an archeological survey that will reveal whether human remains still rest beneath the land, which has since been converted into a parking lot. If the answer is yes, state law would require the developer to request permission to disturb the land, and it could do so only under state supervision.
The church attempted to bring on two independent anthropologists to take charge of the study, but after a dispute with the county planning board over how much control those experts would exercise the plan was nixed — and the board directed Regency to go ahead with its own initial research. Now County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) has proposed mediation, but the church is distrustful.
The church should participate, but once mediation begins it will be the county’s job to win back that trust. At the least, Montgomery County should offer to fund a study by the anthropologists the church selected, and Regency should agree to their involvement. Whether bodies still lie under the lot or were disinterred during earlier development, the site retains historical significance, and significance for the descendants of those buried there.
The Montgomery planning board cannot force a private property owner to build a museum — which may not be a viable option for commemorating the burial site anyway. And especially if no remains are found, Regency could go to court if denied permission to build. But the county could offer to purchase the land parcel from Regency and, with the church’s help soliciting donations, find an appropriate way to memorialize it.
Montgomery County has followed protocol from start to finish. But to the church, the cemetery controversy is about more than protocol. It's about a saga of disenfranchisement that started when county covenants pushed African Americans to live in proscribed areas and continued when development pushed them back out. The county's current leaders did not start this chain of events. But they have a chance to point history in a more positive direction.