Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Black cemetery advocates call for boycott of Montgomery County Juneteenth events over missing remains

Object cemetery advocates believe is
an intact headstone from
Moses African Cemetery, photographed
by observers during excavation for a
self-storage building in Bethesda

The Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition is calling for a boycott of Montgomery County government-sponsored Juneteenth events this year, if the County does not bring forward missing bone fragments - along with a chain of custody of those remains - discovered during excavation for a self-storage building behind the McDonald's on River Road in Bethesda, by June 19, 2023. Those fragments were dislodged during excavation work in 2020, on a property directly adjacent to the boundaries of the Moses African Cemetery, which is hidden beneath the rear parking lot of Westwood Tower and a gravel parking lot below the rear of McDonald's and Talbert's. The developer's archaeological advisor declared at the time that they were not human bones. But internationally-renowned anthropologist Dr. Michael Blakey, an expert on African-American burial sites and known for his role in the development of the African Burial Ground National Monument in New York City, called for an immediate halt to excavation after reviewing photographs of the mystery remains.

"The photograph I was shown...shows fragments of light-colored elongated material consistent with skeletal material, but is not currently verifiable as such," Blakey wrote in 2020. When Blakey asked Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich if he could examine the fragments with his own expertise, he was allegedly told that the bone fragments were now missing. 

"Marc Elrich and I talked, and he told me that human remains had been, I'm sorry, that remains had been found on the site," Blakey recounted in an interview earlier this year. "And they had been sent to a laboratory somewhere. And they were discovered not to be by those who were doing the assessment. And I assumed they were people with the kind of expertise I have as a bioarchaeologist, or they may have been forensic anthropologists, to identify human bone from bone fragments."

"I did not necessarily trust the situation myself at that point. I'd like to see! And so I asked Mr. Elrich if I could observe and examine those remains, and in so doing, my assessment might be trusted. And at some point along in the conversation - I think he was going to go back - and then we had a second conversation, as I roughly recall. They were not sure, his understanding was, that the archaeologists nor he were sure of where the remains were. And that's suspicious."

"I was not afforded the permission to [examine] those bone fragments. The question is, 'What are you hiding? What are you afraid of?' The way to allay distrust is transparency. Complete, utter transparency. There's no reason not to have that in a trustworthy situation. And so one would think [this] situation not trustworthy."

"The treatment of the descendant community in Bethesda was equivalent to calling them the N-word. Racism is about so many kinds of degradations, of exclusion, and 'white hoarding,' as someone put it, of things that don't belong to them. And maybe in this case, in the case of Moses Cemetery, the term 'dismissal' is appropriate. The Black community's humane interests were just dismissed."

Moses African Cemetery was desecrated and paved over during the construction of Westwood Tower in the late 1960s. A longstanding concern of cemetery advocates has been the possibility that some remains may have been buried beyond the property line of the cemetery, a common finding in other Black cemeteries across the country. Those concerns were unanimously dismissed by the Montgomery County Planning Board in 2017, at a meeting where Chair Casey Anderson called in armed police to confront Black activists peacefully protesting to stop the self-storage project.

With the approval of Anderson and the Planning Board, excavation at the self-storage site began. Blakey's concerns were echoed by those of Dr. Adrienne Pine, Professor of Anthropology at American University, Dr. Rachel Watkins, Associate Professor of Anthropology at American University, and Dr. Tammy R. Hilburn, an archaeologist and cultural property crime specialist. Hilburn observed the excavation and construction work at the site from beyond the property line on an almost-daily basis since June 8, 2020.

"I have seen no screening of dirt nor manifestation of the items or personnel typically associated with proper archaeological methodologies," Hilburn says. "I have seen archaeological strata and possible biomass, as well as possible osseous fragments, not to mention other cultural material, in piles being shifted around and re-used on the site that is to be the new storage facility." Among the possible funerary objects seen by observers was one that strongly resembled a headstone. The cemetery's headstones were believed to have been bulldozed into the earth prior to construction of Westwood Tower.

"Elrich has known since 2020 that bones were recovered at the worksite of the Bethesda Self Storage project," BACC President Marsha Coleman-Adebayo said in a statement Tuesday. "Those bones were trafficked across state lines with instructions in 2020 that they needed DNA analysis. None was done.  BACC calls for a boycott of Montgomery County [government's] Juneteenth activities in protest of these startling revelations that we received—not from Mr. Elrich or any other County official—but via our Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) requests."

“Mr. Elrich was told three years ago by world renowned anthropologist, Dr. Michael Blakey, that the loss of bones that were discovered at the site was unacceptable and suspicious,” the Rev. Dr. Segun  Adebayo, Pastor of Macedonia Baptist Church said in a statement. "Three years ago Dr. Blakey advised Mr. Elrich to halt construction and to bring BACC into a central role in the oversight process. Elrich failed to act, allowing massive destruction of Moses Cemetery.” Macedonia Baptist Church is the sole physical remnant of the Black community that existed on River Road from after the Civil War until the 1960s.

"Despite the County knowing of [National Historic Preservation Act] Section 106 mandates, Mr. Elrich consistently insists he is powerless to stop the desecration," Coleman-Adebayo continued in her statement. "No local official—the 106 process must be initiated by a government official—has stepped forward to initiate the process."

As a result, the BACC is calling for a boycott of County government-sponsored Juneteenth events for 2023, until and unless the remains are located and returned to the cemetery soil. BACC invites the public to instead attend its own Juneteenth observance on June 19, between 2:00 and 5:00 PM opposite 5119 River Road in Bethesda. Speakers at the event will include Maryland 8th District U.S. Congressman Jamie Raskin (D), and Harvey Matthews, a childhood resident of the lost Black community on River Road.

Montgomery County failed to apply the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966's "stringent  procedures regarding the disruption of a cemetery as prerequisites for building permits—and  archaeological best practices mandating the inclusion of the descendant community in the central role of the disposition of ancestral remains," Coleman-Adebayo said. "The County did none of these, yet still sings the praises of Juneteenth? Juneteenth didn’t stop Jim Crow. Juneteenth didn’t stop the Klan. And it hasn’t stopped the desecration" of Moses African Cemetery.

Photo courtesy BACC

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