Demonstrator speaks at Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition protest against the development of a storage facility atop a historical Black cemetery. Photo credit: Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition

Black cemetery preservationists in Maryland sue to block development on African American burial site

3 mins read

The Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission is selling cemetery land housing the bodies of previously enslaved Blacks without obtaining court permission first. Activists say this is a violation of a Maryland legal requirement.

Following a series of summer protests, the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition (BACC) has filed suit in the Montgomery County, Maryland Circuit Court against the county’s Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC). The complaint attempts to stop the sale of land which contains portions of an African American cemetery dating back to enslavement. 

According to the lawsuit, anyone selling cemetery property meant for another purpose must obtain a court judgement for the sale. Under Maryland law, the court can attach conditions to a sale of this kind. Also, it can order the proceeds from the sale to be used as payment for the removal and reinterment process.

The suit was brought by descendants of Nanette Hunter, Darold Cuba, and Montani Wallace, enslaved Africans who are buried in the cemetery. Other parties to the suit are BACC, and Reverend Olusegun Adebayo, pastor of Bethesda’s Macedonia Baptist Church, the previous owner of the Moses Macedonia African Cemetery.

The purchase, if it goes through, holds a strong irony. Moses Macedonia burial grounds contain Africans who were kidnapped, sold, then forced to work in America’s chattel slave system. The sale of the land means their bodies serve as capital once again; thus taking on a new meaning of the commodification of Black bodies.

Protestors at Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition demonstration in June 2020. The state of Maryland says that many African and Native burial sites are unmarked, and have, over time, fall outside of the boundaries of what is mapped as cemeteries. Photo credit: Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition

‘Selling’ Black ancestors

“The County is participating in the trafficking of human remains in the Moses Macedonia Cemetery,” said Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo to The Sentinel, a county newspaper. As BACC president and Rev. Adebayo’s wife, she sees the sale as immoral, calling it unconscionable, and disrespectful. 

Dr. Coleman-Adebayo continues, “The proposed ‘sale’ of the bodies of our ancestors, along with a building, is being treated as though they were just other inanimate objects. Our ancestors were human, and they deserve dignity. This proposed ‘sale’ continues the county’s long history of not considering Black people as human.”

The HOC purchased the land that includes the cemetery in 2017. Since the purchase, the commission has insisted that it understands the BACC wants the cemetery memorialized as sacred ground. All the while, it has not stopped its sales efforts.

“I have heard the talk that they’re dedicated to memorialization, but for two years after Macedonia established that Moses African Cemetery lies under a parking lot, HOC has shown they have no plans,” asserted Dr. Coleman-Adebayo in a 2019 Washington Informer article. She claimed that the commission has no legitimate interest in the cemetery. The Macedonia Church should have full control and ownership of the cemetery, she said. 

Excavating possible funerary objects and remains

Last year, Dr. Coleman-Adebayo informed Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich that a company building a self-storage facility on part of the cemetery site, Bethesda Self Storage Partners, had found possible funerary objects. But, they had not notified the Montgomery County Planning Department nor the State Attorney’s Office. Dr. Coleman-Adebayo also wrote in the letter that continuing the project without such notifications violates the law.

Under Maryland’s Department of Planning, when a cemetery is associated with a historical event, they can be protected under the state’s historical trust. Moreover, the law mandates that any human remains found must be reported to the county States Attorney. Though funerary objects might lead to burial sites, HOC’s failure to report them disrupted the chance to search for graves.

Affordable housing vs. peaceful rest for Black ancestors

This year, the HOC accepted a $51 million bid from Charger Ventures, LLC, a DC-based investment firm, for another property containing part of the cemetery. Charger Ventures has set out to buy Westwood Tower Apartments and its parking lot, which was built on a part of the cemetery. Their development plans aim to construct at least 52 affordable apartment units on the site.

In June, HOC executive director, Stacy Spann, said there would be a $30 million surplus from the sale. The commission could use the profit to build affordable housing units across Montgomery County.

A team of attorneys from DC-based intellectual property firm Rothwell Figg is representing the plaintiffs in the suit pro bono. “Why do we seek relief?,” rhetorically asked Rothwell Figg attorney Steven Lieberman as quoted in The Washington Post. “So that the descendants of the people buried on this land finally can present their testimony to the court about what this land means to them and how they believe the remains of their ancestors should be memorialized and treated.”

County Executive Elrich said in a Post interview that he believes the law applies only when a cemetery is changed or removed, not when it is sold. Depending on the lawsuit’s outcome, the sale is scheduled to be completed in early September.

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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