Marsha Coleman-Adebayo at protest against developers at African American burial ground. Photo credit: Save Bethesda African Cemetery Facebook page

Coalition protests real estate company plans to build atop Black cemetery

Collective fighting against developers building on Black burial site intensifies demonstrations.

In mid-July, members of the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition (BACC) braved 96-to-100-degree heat to protest a real estate company’s anticipated apartment building and parking lot purchase in Bethesda, Maryland. BACC claims the property sits atop an old, African American cemetery.

The protesters demonstrated for an hour in the wilting heat across the street from the home of Jessie Henry, at 5303 Duvall Drive. Henry is a founder of Charger Ventures LLC, a D.C.-based company, and a member of its board of directors. The house doubles as an office of the company.  The protesters waved signs and shouted, “Save Moses Cemetery!” at the house, handing out information about the Black cemetery to passers-by.

Two Montgomery County police squad cars were parked in front of the house.  “The house is empty,” said one of the police officers. “No one is in there.”

“Of course, someone is there. Why else were the police called?” said Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, a demonstrator, a coalition member, and a social justice coordinator at Macedonia Baptist Church.  “Jessie Henry is concerned that her neighbors will find out what she’s been doing relative to Moses Cemetery.”

The Moses Cemetery, previously owned by Macedonia Baptist Church, was where generations of Bethesda’s Black residents were buried. As cemeteries were segregated, the interment of Black people could not occur in “whites only” cemeteries. BACC members say the bodies of enslaved African Americans and “Jim Crow,” post-enslavement segregation era Bethesdans, are also interred there.

Of other importance, the church and the cemetery are part of Bethesda’s Black history. After the Civil War, formerly enslaved Black people formed a community in the area. But in the 1950s and 1960s, higher-rent apartments and shopping centers displaced the community.

Marching onward

BCCC protestor takes photos of developers unearthing burial sites during development. Photo credit: Save Bethesda African Cemetery Facebook page

“This is about the erasure of the history of Black people in Montgomery County,” insisted Coleman-Adebayo at the rally. “Black people built Montgomery County, just like we built the U.S.” Coleman-Adebayo compared placing an apartment complex and parking lot over an old Black cemetery to the sale of kidnapped Africans who were subsequently bought, sold and enslaved in the U.S. 

Another demonstrator, Baba Mosi Matsimela, stood on a curb across from the Charger Ventures house, holding a red, black, and green flag, popularized in the 1920s by Pan Africanist leader Marcus Garvey. The Jamaican immigrant championed unity, solidarity, and cooperation between Black people in Africa and the diaspora. “I don’t have any relatives who were buried in the cemetery,” said Matsimela, who is the president of the United Negro Improvement Association Division 330 in Washington, D.C. “But I am of African descent, and I think Black people should support this protest. We can’t let developers get away with this attempt to erase African history here.”

Planned sale and backlash

The Housing Opportunities Commission of Montgomery County, which includes the city of Bethesda, plans to sell Westward Tower Apartments, the building in question, along with its parking lot, to Charger Ventures LLC for about $51 million. The Commission had purchased the property in 2017.

Last month, its executive director Stacy Spann told a commission meeting that there would be a $30 million surplus from the sale to invest in affordable housing projects across the county after paying off associated debts. Each entity that bid for the property, including Charger Ventures LLC, said they would build affordable housing, 52 apartment units, on the property, and possibly more than that.

Yet the BACC  released a statement expressing outrage that the Commission would consider selling property built over a Black cemetery. “Montgomery County did not respect our community enough to even inform us that they were about to ‘sell’ our family/church members,” the statement reads in part. “The County has shown that it does not respect Black people either dead or alive.”

The sale is expected to be finalized in early September, but BACC is committed to preventing its occurrence. Coalition members will demonstrate every Monday for an hour across the street from 5303 Duvall Drive. “We have to try to stop the sale,” Coleman-Adebayo said.

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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