Westbard's Forgotten History - Plantations, Emancipation and the Jim Crow Era

The area around the Willett Branch in Bethesda (named after Jehu Willett & family) as it winds though the Westbard Sector has had a long and interesting history, rich with African American details.  

As part of the planned Willett Branch Stream Valley Park, this history needs to be told and preserved. In the spring of 2016, LFWA formed a History Committee to build on the research done by the Park and Planning Historians to help inform the neighbors of the history of their community.   The results of their work can be found HERE.

Cemetery in the press ( click HERE, then scroll down to bottom of page).

More maps and a history of the Cemetery HERE.

February 24, 2017 Washington Post Article about the Cemetery is HERE

Visit HERE to learn how you can help make the Park a reality for our neighborhood.

Detail from map of Washington, DC & Montgomery County, Maryland, by G. M. Hopkin

Pre-Civil War:

Westbard was home to at least two plantations and tobacco was the cash crop.  The area west of River Road in Bethesda was wooded with the Willett Branch creek cutting through the forest until the Westwood Shopping Center was built in 1958. To the right is an detail from a 1897 map of Washington, DC & Montgomery County, Maryland, by G. M. Hopkins, 1879 showing area. The Loughborough Plantation is in the center of the map.

Post-Civil War Community:

Following the Civil War, freed slaves bought land on both sides of River Road between what are now Little Falls Parkway and Brookside Drive and founded a thriving African American community. See families Brown, Gray, Warren, Burley, Jackson and Nelson [Wood] on the 1879  map. This community grew to 25 - 30 families by the 1950's.  Oral histories and census data show that residents were involved in building the local roads as well as the homes in surrounding communities that developed in the first half of the twentieth century.  Laborers building Bradley Boulevard, 1911.  Montgomery County Historical SocietyThey found employment on the C & O Canal and at the government animal research station in nearby Norwood.  Residents also worked at the Bethesda Blue Granite Company, which operated a quarry near the Willett Branch.

Local attractions included a quarry swimming hole, a semi-pro baseball team called the River Road Lions, and the Sugar Bowl tavern.  Spiritual needs were served by local ministers, who served the residents and were involved in founding the Macedonia Baptist Church, which remains to this day. 

Transportation needs of the community were served by two electric railways and the Metropolitan Branch Southern railroad.  These lines facilitated industrial and residential growth in the area, which increased employment opportunities for the local community.

Cemeteries:

 As it was customary for residents to be buried on their property, many family cemeteries exist in the area.  These plots may date back to pre-civil wars days. LFWA historians have found evidence of at least three others - one near the Washington Episcopal School, one in Brookdale neighborhood and one off of River Road by the Willard Ave Neighborhood Park.

To serve the larger African American community, The White’s Tabernacle #39 Cemetery was created in 1911 by the Ancient United Order of the Sons and Daughters, Brothers and Sisters of Moses, an African American fraternal society.  The graveyard was located along1917 Map Showing White's Tabernacle Cemetery the west bank of the Willett Branch where the parking area for the Westwood Tower is today.  The first burials were graves moved from their original location in Tenleytown.  Death notices indicate that the cemetery continued to be used for new burials and former residents recall "playing among the gravestones" as children in the 1950's.  The cemetery land was sold in 1958.   It is even possible that the cemetery land served as a slave burial ground before the Civil War.

Segregated Schools:

By the 1912 - 1913 school year, a segregated school was established to serve the children of this community. Residents founded, served as trustees, and taught at  the River Road Colored School, which later became part of the Montgomery County "separate but equal" system of public schools.  At first, leased farm property in this Bethesda community or  residents' homes housed the school.In 1925, the Rosenwald Foundation (operated by Julius Rosenwald, Chairman of Sears and Roebuck) funded construction of a new school (pictured on the right). The school overlooked the Willett Branch, across from the current Westwood Towers site and operated until 1955, when Montgomery County public schools were desegregated. The school building was torn down shortly after closing and a TV/radio tower was installed on the site.

Development Changes the Landscape:

During late 1950's and 1960's, the area was developed. Dr. Lazslo Tauber and others purchased and assembled more than 20 acres of  wooded land along and behind the Willett Branch, including the cemetery property. Fill was used to level the area; and excavation was done to build the Westwood Shopping Center, the Westwood Tower apartments and the Westwood Building, which housed part of the National Institutes of Health.

What Happened to the White's Tabernacle Cemetery? There are no records that the graves were moved. First-hand accounts report that fill was placed on top of the graves in the cemetery and these African American graves were lost to history.  Observers reported that construction workers found human remains in the course of excavation and construction of Westwood Towers. Given this history and the lack of any records of any grave removals, it is highly likely that human remains are still on the cemetery property. Before any new construction is approved for this location, a cemetery delineation is urgently needed.  See HERE for Washington Post article about the cemetery. 

Macedonia Baptist Church:

Residents were displaced by development in Betheda including the Kenwood condos, the new Little Falls Parkway and the Westwood Tower Apartments.  All that remains of this once thriving Bethesda community is the Macedonia Baptist Church (pictured to the right).  The church was established in 1923.  The building sits on land once owned by the Clipper family who is honored by having Clipper Lane named for them. The congregation still meets today for fellowship and worship.

 

Please contact the Chair of our history committee, David Kathan, at DKathan@gmail.com if you are interested in learning more about the history of the Westbard community.