Potomac It was just a glimpse and a few remarks but when County Council President
Effort propelled by Berliner.
“Just seeing it was enough to get me motivated.”
— County Council President Roger Berliner
Roger Berliner saw the condition of the historic cemetery at Tobytown in Potomac he knew he had to act.
“It was shocking, it was outrageous, it was not OK,” Berliner said. “Just seeing it was enough to get me motivated.”
The cemetery lies behind the townhouses that make up Tobytown. It is a long rectangular plot surrounded by a chain link fence. The gate into the cemetery is off its hinges, leaning against the inside of the fence. Nothing about the enclosure indicates that the land holds the remains of Tobytown residents, perhaps dating back to the early years of the community that was established in 1875 by freed slaves.
Five stones scattered about are, perhaps, grave stones though they are all small and none are inscribed with letters or numbers.
During Black History Month in February, Berliner watched a video presentation on two African American communities in Montgomery County. One was Lincoln Park in Rockville. The other was Tobytown at the intersection of River Road and Pennyfield Lock Road, about five miles west of Potomac Village.
The video shows the abandoned, overgrown plot of land that resident Jimmy Wilson explains is the cemetery. Without Wilson’s information there is no way to know the plot is hallowed ground. Besides the fence, the site is most notable for the vines, trees and dead leaves taking over. Berliner said he immediately sent a letter to Stacy Spann, director of the county’s Housing Opportunities Commission, which is responsible for the upkeep of Tobytown.
The HOC bought Tobytown in in 1972, replacing the old wooden structures with modern townhouses that included indoor plumbing. Before that residents shared one well and used outhouses.
“Given that HOC owns and is responsible for the cemetery property, I am writing to formally request that you promptly restore the community’s cemetery to a dignified state and develop a plan for its on-going maintenance,” Berliner wrote.
Erin Bradley, from the HOC legal and public affairs office, said she was not aware of the state of the Tobytown cemetery before Berliner’s letter. She said she has been to many meetings with Tobytown residents about community needs but the cemetery was never mentioned.
Right now, she said, HOC is working to repair a drainage problem in the community, planning a major renovation of the community center and updating the playground, among other improvements.
As with all improvements, HOC works with Tobytown residents. Shauna Sorrells, director of HOC office of legislative and public affairs, said, and will do so with work on the cemetery.
There are best practices for cemetery renewal, she said, and HOC is working with professional organizations to learn how to best renovate the Tobytown cemetery. Among those practices is checking the site with in-ground radar so be sure it is a burial site, she said.
After learning of the cemetery disrepair, Mark Kasevic of Kasevic Landscape Company in Bethesda offered to clean up the site free of charge.
“It was a generous offer,” Sorrells said. “But we need to know how best to do the cleanup.”