History denied is history that is stolen

I feel like it sort of takes away somewhat from the church and the lodge hall because it’s so much taller than they are and they are the historical properties, not the tower. — neighborhood resident, August 2002.

A historic church, fraternal lodge, and tower in the heart of a Southern African American neighborhood, 2002.

This evening the Montgomery County Planning Board is poised to approve a new site plan for a proposed self-storage facility in Bethesda. The property where the facility is proposed once was part of an African American cemetery used by a Washington, D.C., benevolent organization during the first half of the twentieth century.

Like its counterparts throughout the United States in the federal, state, and local governments, the Montgomery County Planning Board and its staff in the Montgomery County Planning Department have failed to adequately take into account impacts to a historic African American property and a living community associated with it: the Moses Cemetery. An ethnocentric bias towards the cemetery is evident in all aspects of the County’s planning efforts dating back to the agency’s first involvement with the site as it was preparing the Westbard Sector Plan.

Montgomery County’s approach to the cemetery, the former African American hamlet, and the African American descendant community reminds me of another historic preservation case I was involved with more than a decade ago. In that case, a telecommunications company built a cell phone tower next to a historic African American masonic lodge and across the street from a historic African American church.

Neither institution was consulted prior to the tower’s construction in a Southern city far from Bethesda, Maryland. Though separated by hundreds of miles, Montgomery County and this Southern city have one thing in common: planning and historic preservation marginalize and oftentimes omit people of color.

I was able to speak with leaders from the congregation and the lodge about their histories and about how the Federal Communications Commission (through its licensee, the tower owner) and the state historic preservation office failed to engage in meaningful consultation prior to the tower’s construction. Their comments are instructive as Montgomery County moves forward implementing its vision to retrofit a patch of suburbia now known as Westbard but which once simply was known as “River Road.”

The Lodge

Masonic lodge facade.

It was not brought to our attention. I did not get a letter or nothing from the City and I also went to the City and complained about it and this is what the City told me: Said, “Well, you all didn’t have to say anything. They didn’t you all’s permission to put it up there.” And another thing, I didn’t see no rezoning sign up there, see what I’m saying? And they called me one day and said that they are building something next to you all’s lodge hall. And I said, “What is it”? So they said they don’t know. When I went down there, the base of it it was up. It was up. So there wasn’t nothing I could do to stop that.

I think they should have come, the FCC, should have come and said, “Is it alright to put this here? Do you all agree to it” instead of going and sticking it there and we see it and two years later this comes up. I think this could have been avoided if we started off right to start with.

This building means a lot in the Afro-American, downtown. Now, I’m hesitant to saying this, but it’s a fact. This generation now, a lot of them don’t even care nothing about the building. Don’t even know what the building is all about. Maybe in the next fifty years, the building won’t be there, but there are a few Afro-Americans living is tied to that building. — Lodge leader, May 2003.

Telecommunications tower looms over the historic African American lodge.

The Church

Historic African American church as seen from across the street from the masonic lodge (corner visible in left side of frame).

It really hasn’t gone much farther than that other than it being mentioned, simply saying that the tower doesn’t really fit into their view of things and that’s been a few people who have come to me and talked about it. There have been a lot of other passionate things about what the city plans to do in this part of town with reference to whether or not it, whether it’s going to maintain it’s historic kind of posture, if you will. But there have been a few people who have mentioned the tower and some like myself don’t really think it blends in with the community, especially when you talk about a historic community.

I do know that so far as the mentality of it, as to how it looks and the mentality of how people feel about the church and everything, it kind of has some effect upon them because it’s obviously been noticed. Enough people have actually come to me and mentioned it and said, “Well, you know, we didn’t know it was going to be placed there and did we get any input on it. Was there ever – did the community ever get a chance to share their thinking about a tower in the location,” that kind of thing. But it has been mentioned, probably after the fact, but it has been mentioned. — Church leader, May 2003.

Telecommunications tower as seen from the historic African American church’s main entrance.

The Lesson

The Moses Cemetery is an archaeological site and a site of conscience. The nearby Macedonia Baptist Church and the River Road descendant community have asked that Montgomery County protect the cemetery site and prevent additional development that would further disturb the site and diminish the surrounding environment in ways that adversely affect the community’s efforts to memorialize and interpret the site.

Can Montgomery County live up to its branding? We’ll see tonight. Like the Southern city’s lifelong resident and lodge leader told me more than a decade ago about the failure to consult his neighbors before the telecommunications tower was built, “I think this could have been avoided if we started off right to start with.”

Self storage facility proposed for lot adjacent to Moses Cemetery site. Renderings submitted to the Montgomery County Planning Board in the case of Westbard Self Storage, Preliminary Plan No. 120170280 and Site Plan No. 820170110.

One thought on “History denied is history that is stolen

  1. Before The Internet and Cell Phones, every single morning, combing, brushing and braiding my hair, I heard “Their Stories,” my head between their knees. Most times they were good stories. My mother and aunt expected me to inhabit a world very different from theirs. And most everything out their mouths was upbeat and positive… what a future I was having, if I’d just sit still and quit jumping, so whatever they were doing to my head wouldn’t hurt more than it had to. If it did, it was my own fault. That’s how girls of my time learned to sit still and who they came from.

    My grandmother, their mother’s stories were different. I learned about the tornado that destroyed the White side of some rural town the night after they’d lynched a Negro. We were Negroes, then. I learned about her girlfriend, who lived in Harlem. They spoke, long distance, at least twice every year. Neither could read or write, though Mama dictated letters to my mother and aunt during World War II and copied the flow of lines in her own hand to mail to the husbands of her daughters. I learned to be a woman from three women who’d made ways out of no ways and whose men made it back home.

    Somehow we’ve got to return to telling our own histories to our own children. The hand-gizmos, that give our children instant access to everything, give them access to nothing that’s about them. Clutching a child’s head between the knees might be considered child abuse in today’s America. But filling our own children’s heads with our and our parent’s stories is such a bigger and more important truth than adding their DNA to some Corporate Citizen’s cache of genetic markers to tell them, who is from whose bloodline… not that I mind my dog’s breeding history. But our kids need to know from us, how they got to today.

    Any ideas, Anyone?

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