March to Save Bethesda African Cemetery. Photo credit Save Bethesda African Cemetery Facebook

No eternal rest, no peace. Groups protest developers’ destruction of old Black burial grounds

Site of an African American cemetery is at the center of a struggle between developers and community advocates.

On River Road in Bethesda, Maryland, a group of 100 people gathered on a corner near a gas station to wave signs at passers-by, some of which read,  “Black Ancestors Matter.” They distributed fliers about an old African American cemetery which they said was close to being destroyed by developers.

In 2017, a company called 1784 Capital Holdings, the parent company of Bethesda Self-Storage, purchased 1.5 million acres of land on which to build a multi-level facility for self-storage. But the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition, which sponsored a rally on the same day as this past Juneteenth, said there are remains of African Americans under the land, which had once been an African American cemetery.

“When you bury [the body of a dead loved one], that’s supposed to be their final resting place,” Arthur McCloud, board chair of Washington D.C.’s “jazz and justice” community radio station WPFW-FM, told the demonstrators. “How can you let somebody come along and disrupt that? There’s  no ‘free’ in ‘freedom’ if our ancestors are treated like slaves. How long will we let people take our property? Why do we have to keep fighting for our lives when our ancestors already paid for our lives with theirs?”

Dr. Lennox Yearwood of the national Hip Hop Caucus who spoke at the rally, told Ark he participated because, “It’s the right thing to do. Justice delayed is justice denied.”

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The coalition has been trying to halt construction on the property for years. The burial grounds, and the nearby Macedonia Baptist Church, are all that’s left of the once thriving Black community in the area which existed in the years following the Civil War. During the 1950s and 1960s land was bought up and the Black community was replaced by high rise apartment buildings and shopping centers.

The gentrification of the area is part of the reason why 1784 Capital Holdings bought the property. “The Bethesda area has extraordinary demographics and extraordinary market fundamentals,” the company’s January 2017 news release read in part. “It is a significantly undersupplied market with three times the national average for rent.  We chose the site because it’s one of the last zoned and developable parcels of land for self-storage in Bethesda.”

In an interview with news organization DCist, company attorney Timothy Dugan said it returned a third of an acre of the property to the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission, saying it was probably part of the cemetery.

1784 Capital Holdings said it had conducted its own archaeological exploration of the property it purchased. “We have no reason to believe that the land where the self-storage building is being erected ever served as a burial site,” Dugan said in an emailed statement to DCist. But The Ottery Group, a local company which provides consultation on historic preservation issues, conducted a review in July 2017. It concluded that the land had been the site of a cemetery since 1911.

. . . .  

The coalition and its supporters asked Dr. Michael Blakey, a  National Endowment for the Humanities Anthropology and American Studies professor at William & Mary in Williamsburg, in Virginia, to take a look at the property. Previously, Dr. Blakey directed the African Burial Ground Project in New York City, where archaeologists and anthropologists conducted research on remains in a centuries-old cemetery where Africans were buried. 

From his findings, he indicated that although he didn’t have complete access to the property to examine it further, his observations, as well as photographs, convinced him that there were human remains in the ground. In his research, he saw “light colored elongated material consistent with skeletal material” and an area of “possibly organically rich soil” of the type resulting from burials.

Similar disputes between developers and Black communities over land possibly containing the remains of enslaved or free Black people are becoming more commonplace. In Clearwater, Florida, remains from North Greenwood Cemetery, a Black cemetery, were moved to another cemetery in 1954 to create space for a high school building, now unused, and a swimming pool, which was eventually torn down. Black residents tried to tell the city government that there were remains buried on the grounds. However, the claims were ignored. 

But earlier this year, Cardno Inc., an engineering firm based in Tampa, and researchers from the University of South Florida and the Florida Public Archaeology Network, found at least 29 remains buried under the original cemetery site.

In the District of Columbia’s predominantly white Georgetown area, which at one time was close to 30 percent Black, residents renovating their houses are finding human skeletons. Clemson University found the remains of 604 African Americans in unmarked graves in its on-campus cemetery.

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During the years of segregation, particularly in Southern states, African Americans were prohibited from burying their deceased loved ones in “whites only” cemeteries. They built their own, but they lacked the resources for upkeep. If Black communities were removed and cities replaced them with highways or buildings, the Black cemeteries were often left behind, eventually hidden by weeds, trees, and overgrowth.  

Developers who haven’t conducted any searches for remains by using ground penetrating radar are more likely to pave them over for streets, parking lots, buildings, and other projects. “Blacks have had to fight to get equal rights in every facet of life, including death,” said Tony Burroughs, CEO of Chicago’s Center for Black Genealogy, in a recent AP interview.

Some U.S. Representatives and Senators have drafted legislation, designed to prevent further neglect, decay and destruction of Black cemeteries. Representative Alma Adams (D-North Carolina) and co-sponsor Representative Donald McEachin (D-Virginia) introduced a bill in 2019, the African American Burial Grounds Network Act, under which the National Park Service would create a database of historically Black cemeteries, making it easier to preserve and protect them.

This January, a similar bill sponsored by U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) passed unanimously.  The bill calls for the Department of the Interior to investigate the existence and locations of African American cemeteries. The measure’s focus is on Black cemeteries in South Carolina, but it has implications for the creation of a national network. The bill was sent to the House for a vote. So far, no House hearings on the bill have been scheduled.

Meanwhile, Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition members vow to continue protesting plans for a self-storage facility to be built on top of the hallowed ground of African ancestors.

Margaret Summers has worked as a print and radio news reporter and a media relations professional. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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