by BAR editor and columnist Dr. Marsha Adebayo
Black community members attempting to preserve an ancestral burial ground charge they were “deceived, misled and ambushed” by officials in suburban Montgomery County, Maryland. The Bethesda African Cemetery was already buried under a parking lot. Now the county has assigned an all-white team to determine if there are bodies in the cemetery – after booting two renowned Black experts off the case. Activists call the county’s conduct “criminal.”
The Community Had a Duty to Shut Down the Montgomery County Hearing on the Bethesda African Burial Ground
by BAR editor and columnist Dr. Marsha Adebayo
“An all-white cultural resource management firm was awarded the contract to investigate the Bethesda African cemetery.”
The April 9, 2017 Washington Post article entitled: “Charges of deception in effort to reach accord on black cemetery in Bethesda" is not accurate. To characterize the county's practices in the Bethesda African Cemetery dispute as "deception," given what we now know—by virtue of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)-released county documents is misleading. Montgomery County Parks and Planning Director, Gwen Wright, plays a central role in the disenfranchisement of Blacks. The Africans desecrated under the parking lot in Bethesda represent the first-generation of free Africans in the United States, and as such they occupy a sacred place in the earth—and in American history.
Notwithstanding, since Macedonia Baptist Church distributed detailed documentation of Ms. Wright's treachery via press releases to the media and throughout the county government—she is still employed, still collecting a salary and still making decisions detrimental to Black communities throughout Montgomery County, Maryland. This clearly indicates Ms. Wright is not the only villain in this story. The county's role in deceiving, covering-up and concealing critical information about the Bethesda African Burial ground has become clear. The goal is to provide an unfair financial advantage to both the Housing Opportunities Commission and the Regency Group. This is not simply deception, as described by Washington Post -- it's criminal.
“The county's role in deceiving, covering-up and concealing critical information about the Bethesda African Burial ground has become clear.”
Recently released FOIA documents exposed a vast Planning Department “cover-up” of information led by Montgomery County Planning Director Gwen Wright regarding the African Burial Ground. Ms. Wright took pains to conceal documents showing the location of the Bethesda African Cemetery from the Planning Commissioners, County Council, the public and indeed the County Executive, Ike Leggett. She concealed maps, charts, photos, oral histories, public records and statements by county historians that human remains are present in the cemetery. Further, FOIA documents and previously marked confidential records show that the county's Housing Opportunity Commission (HOC) and Equity One (EO) have been collaborating since 2015 on development plans to facilitate HOC's and EO's mutual illicit financial goals.
Ms. Wright ousted archeologist, Dr. Michael Blakey, a Professor of Anthropology at the William and Mary College and a world renowned and preeminent expert on African cemetery research, from participating in the cemetery delineation in Bethesda. Blakey was brought into the process on Macedonia's recommendation based on his seminal work in exploring the Manhattan Wall Street African Burial Ground, in 2003. She also ousted American University Anthropologist, Dr. Rachel Watkins -- also African-American -- because of her insistence on a rigorous and thorough investigation of the burial site.
“Ms. Wright took pains to conceal documents showing the location of the Bethesda African Cemetery and that human remains are present in the cemetery.”
Instead, an all-white cultural resource management firm was awarded the contract to investigate the Bethesda African cemetery. When confronted about the racism implicit in this selection, Lyle Torp, Managing Director of Ottery revealed that his contract with the county and the developer was based on white privilege. Torp informed Macedonia of his intent to proceed with his contract with Regency, even though in doing so he was betraying his pledged agreement with Macedonia and Drs. Blakey and Watkins.
This is the kind of overt racism that has characterized the relationship between developers and Montgomery County, from the land grabbing of African-American property on River Road in the 1950’s to the present period.
Thursday's Planning Board meeting perfectly illustrates Montgomery County's land use policy that is still mired in a history of white supremacy: There are those with power and those who are powerless. There are those with a voice and those the County would prefer to remain voiceless. There is what is said publicly—and what happens behind the wood shed.
“Montgomery County's land use policy is still mired in a history of white supremacy.”
Developers are, by far, the most powerful influence on land use in the county, although they are not elected by the public or appointed by any government body. Developers contribute huge amounts of money to the campaigns of candidates for public office.
Therefore, it was the duty of the community to shut the Planning Board down and refuse to allow business as usual to continue. For the first time ever, the Montgomery County Planning Board killed the live stream of a public hearing on Thursday, when supporters of Macedonia Baptist Church tried to stop the Board from violating the truce between the County and Macedonia based on a letter County Executive, Ike Leggett, and Council President, Roger Berliner, sent to Board Chairman, Casey Anderson, calling to “pause for the moment, bring all the parties together to address the various concerns that have been expressed and seek a solution that all can agree upon before we move forward."
Macedonia had planned to silently protest against the County's existing plan that would further desecrate the Bethesda African Cemetery by building a parking garage on top of the parking lot built on top of the cemetery in the 1950s. That plan changed when Robert Kronnenberg, the deputy director of the Planning Department, read the following into the record announcing that Planning Department Director, Gwen Wright, had given the "green light to start the study and commence with that... The applicant has contracted with the cultural resource firm, Ottery Group and they've come to an agreement. The Ottery Group has started the initial research but has not done any of the field work that would be necessary for the part of that study that needs to be completed."
“Developers are, by far, the most powerful influence on land use in the county, although they are not elected by the public or appointed by any government body.”
With the board intent on proceeding with the study and without public input, I demanded to be able to address the board with objections to its violating the work pause, and having Ottery proceed—even though Ottery had promised Macedonia that it would not proceed without all of the archeological team the church had assembled. That group was to be led by Dr. Michael Blakey.
In interviews with reporters after the meeting, Ms. Wright spoke about her commitment to "transparency" in all her dealings with Macedonia, but she did not explain how she could square that assertion with the fact that she did not copy Macedonia in her written response to Leggett and Berliner of March 24, 2017. Nor did she reveal that she had sent a secret letter to her superiors informing them that she would not abide with any agreements arrived through the mediation process.
Macedonia announced later that day that the church would no longer participate in mediation. The pastor, Rev. Segun Adebayo, said in response to the Washington Post, "We were deceived, misled and ambushed. It was a shameful display of dishonor by county leaders."
Fortunately, the Planning Board's live stream was not the only camera in the room. Click the links below to get a sampling of what the board did not want the public to see.
Dr. Marsha Adebayo is the author of the Pulitzer Prize nominated: No FEAR: A Whistleblowers Triumph over Corruption and Retaliation at the EPA. She worked at the EPA for 18 years and blew the whistle on a US multinational corporation that endangered South African vanadium mine workers. Marsha's successful lawsuit led to the introduction and passage of the first civil rights and whistleblower law of the 21st century: the Notification of Federal Employees Anti-discrimination and Retaliation Act of 2002 (No FEAR Act). She is Director of Transparency and Accountability for the Green Shadow Cabinet and serves on the Advisory Board of ExposeFacts.com. Marsha was inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame, March 2017.
Links to additional information:
Listen to the Kojo Nnamdi show interview with Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, Macedonia Baptist Church and Montgomery County Planning Director Gwen Wright