Equity One to Do Cemetery Delineation at Westbard Site

Friday, February 3, 2017 - 12:02am

Little Falls Watershed Alliance has been calling for a cemetery delineation near the Westwood Tower site and we are pleased to announce that it will be done. Equity One will fund a study by the  Ottery Group. We are also pleased to welcome the Macedonia Baptist Church to the process.  Macedonia Church will act as the descendant community for the project. They will be working with Montgomery Planning, Equity One and the Ottery Group to ensure that the work is being done to the highest standards. Also involved in the process will be Dr. Rachel Watkins, Professor of Archaeology at American University and Dr. Michael Blakey, Professor of Archaeology at the College of William and Mary. They bring a wealth of expertise in African American cemetery evacuation and archaeological work.  

Decisions about the proposed parking garage for the rear of the Westwood Towers Building will be affected by the results of the delineation. At this time, Equity One is asking for a six story addition to the building that would include three levels of above ground parking and three of residential units. The building would come within 25 feet of the creek in places, would cover a large area of the former cemetery parcel, and would leave little room for public access to the proposed Willett Branch park. 

UPDATE: June 2, 2017

  • At the February 23, 2017 Planning Board Meeting, the Board voted at the recommendation of the Planning Staff to delay any decision on building on the HOC parcel where the cemetery was located until the cemetery issue has been settled.  Macedonia Baptist Church is currently working with a mediator to see if they can come to a mutualy acceptable process for studying the cemetery.
  • Negociations with Dr. Watkins and Dr. Blakey broke down some time in February and they are no longer part of the project. 
  • Equity One was aquired by the Regency Center in March, 2017.

See HERE for May 22, 2017 report on Westbard. 

Equity One proposed location of building on cemetery site and in stream buffer

Advocacy

is needed to ensure that the cemetery is recognized and honored in the new development and that buildings are appropriately sited so they do not encroach on these ancestral burial grounds.

We have a sample emails, letters and names and addresses at http://www.lfwa.org/email-now-willett-branch-westbard-sector

Background:

The area of River Road between Little Falls Parkway and Ridgefield Road was the home to a vibrant African American Community.  The community was established after the Civil War by freed slaves from area plantations and thrived for about 100 years until the residents were displaced by the current development. The community included a school, businesses, farms, a church and a large cemetery. The Macedonia Baptist Church is still there today, but the cemetery was bulldozed in the early 1960s to make room for the parking and driveways of the Westwood Tower building. Oral history and lack of documentation regarding removal of the graves strongly suggests that there are still human remains on the property.

The Cemetery:

In 1911, White’s Tabernacle #39, a Tenleytown lodge of a national African American benevolent association, bought land for a cemetery along the Willett Branch as their cemetery in Tenleytown was being displaced by a new road. The graves were moved in 1921, after getting permission from Congress. The cemetery was used for local burials until 1940s and oral history tells of cemetery processions heading up Outlet Road to the graveyard. It was sold in 1958 to the nephew of a local developer.  While no buildings were built on the parcel, it is used as a driveway for the Westwood Towers and as surface parking for surrounding businesses.There is no record of what became of the graves or what became of White’s Tabernacle #39.  

Click HERE for more history of the Cemetery and maps of the area.

What is a Cemetery Delineation?

The Westbard Sector Plan describes a cemetery delineation as follows:

The standard methodology for delineation of unmarked graves involves conducting a geophysical survey, most often with ground penetrating radar. Based on those results, mechanical stripping of the upper soil layers is often necessary to confirm the presence or absence of graves. If, as is the case on these parcels, the ground is paved, the asphalt would be removed in a test area and the upper soil would be removal and area examined, and the asphalt replaced after the work is completed. An example of mechanical stripping of the soil to discover a cemetery underneath can be found at Freedmen’s cemetery in Alexandria, Virginia, where unmarked graves were located below fill layers.  (Sector Plan, Appendix, page 104)

The cemetery in Westbard is undoubtedly below many feet of fill. The previously hilly area was considerably regraded to allow for the Westwood Shopping Center, level surface parking, and Westbard Avenue. The asphalt will have to be removed as well as a layer of fill before ground penetrating radar will be effective. There also needs to be mechanical stripping of the layers in several places. The work is expected to be done this by spring of 2017.

Additional information can be found on the cemetery in the Westbard Sector plan appendix or on the LFWA website at http://www.lfwa.org/sites/default/files/attachments/cemetery_packet_from_sector_plan_and_appendix_without_title_page.pdf

River Road African Cemetery Project

Email the Macedonia Baptist Church for more information about the African River Road Cemetery Project at AfricanCemeteryProject@MBC-Bethesda.org

In the Press:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/md-politics/berliner-church-leader-clash-over-allegations-of-cover-up-on-westbard-cemetery/2017/05/24/28de098e-401f-11e7-8c25-44d09ff5a4a8_story.html?utm_term=.5a61a9cec4af

http://www.bethesdamagazine.com/Bethesda-Magazine/May-June-2017/Uncovering-the-Lost-Colony-in-Bethesda/

http://www.voanews.com/a/controversy-former-black-cemetery-uncover-forgotten-community/3838990.html

http://www.bethesdamagazine.com/Bethesda-Beat/2017/Planning-Board-Meeting-Gets-Raucous-as-Officials-Discuss-Westbard-Cemetery-Study/

http://www.nbcwashington.com/news/local/Historic-Bethesda-Church-Wins-Small-Victory_Washington-DC-414663514.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/a-battlefield-of-memory-asphalt-where-a-black-cemetery-is-said-to-have-stood/2017/02/23/af01ba42-efa2-11e6-9973-c5efb7ccfb0d_story.html?hpid=hp_local-news_cemetery-1030am%3Ahomepage%2Fstory&utm_term=.0affe77f975e

https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/md-politics/tensions-escalate-between-montgomery-and-church-over-possible-black-cemetery/2017/02/16/122852ec-f44a-11e6-8d72-263470bf0401_story.html?postshare=3881487346000956&tid=ss_mail&utm_term=.5a4b6933a218

http://patch.com/maryland/bethesda-chevychase/historic-african-american-cemetery-heart-westbard-protests