Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition in June 2021 protest against developers building atop a historical burial ground in Montgomery County, Maryland. Photo credit: Saves Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition Facebook

Investment firm drops effort to buy apartment complex and parking lot at the site of a historical African American cemetery in Maryland

Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition (BACC) claims victory in four-year struggle to preserve the site.

Charger Ventures LLC, an investment firm based out of Washington D.C., has withdrawn its plans to buy an apartment complex and its parking lot in Bethesda, Maryland. At issue is what’s under the parking lot asphalt: an African American cemetery with the remains of enslaved and freed Black people dating as far back as the 19th century. 

Prior to the firm’s decision, Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Karla Smith issued a preliminary injunction in October, which stopped the sale temporarily. To prevent the sale, members of BACC, an activist preservationist group, sued the county’s Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC) in September of this year.

Recently, BACC held what it called a “victory press conference” outside of the Rockville, Maryland courthouse to celebrate the injunction. “We are still on cloud 12, not just cloud nine,”  Reverend Segun Adebayo told reporters. At one point, the Macedonia Baptist Church, where he is the pastor, owned the Moses Cemetery. He emphasized triumphantly, “We are still rejoicing.”

Black cemeteries don’t matter

In August, Charger Ventures struck an agreement with the HOC to pay $50 million for the property. BACC charged that it was illegal for the firm to buy property with a cemetery in it. The group also alleged that it was unlawful for the HOC to sell it without a court’s permission. Furthermore, the property could only be sold if the buyer continued to maintain the land as a cemetery; however, that detail was left out of the sale agreement between Charger Ventures and the HOC, said the judge who issued the injunction.

“These are people [in Moses Cemetery who] were so oppressed and discarded and so disrespected in life, and now, even in death, they meet the same fate,” BACC president Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, told NBC News. 

The Reverend Dr. William Barber II, a North Carolina activist who co-chairs the national Poor People’s Campaign, said property developers like Charger Ventures who seized land from Black people, must compensate the previous owners for what was taken from them. “This cemetery is a metaphor for the larger narrative of land theft that happens to Black communities, Native communities, Latino communities and poor white communities,” Reverend Barber said.

HOC motion to dismiss lawsuit defeated

In October,  Judge Smith denied the HOC’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. She ruled that part of the area where Westwood Towers and the parking lot are located is indeed, the site of the historical burial ground. The judge’s ruling resulted from the nearly 12-hour emergency hearing on the matter held in September. During this time, the BACC provided historical accounts confirming that the cemetery was paved over in the 1960s, when the apartment complex and parking lot were constructed. 

“The deceased have been forgotten, forsaken and their final resting places destroyed, or at a minimum, desecrated,” wrote the judge in a 51-page opinion. 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. The law mandates that any human remains found must be reported to the county’s States Attorney.

“Regardless of whether Charger decides to keep the parking lot, build on the lot, or dig up the lot, bodies of African Americans remain there,” wrote Judge Smith. “.  .  . the Court has an obligation to ensure that such resting places must be respected.”

Charger Ventures could still purchase the property

HOC Chair Roy Priest indicated that Charger Ventures might be interested in buying the property at a later date.   “Due to the ongoing litigation at Westwood Tower Apartments, Charger Ventures and HOC were not able to close on the transaction on the required closing date,” Priest wrote in an email to My Montgomery Community Media. Despite the setback, Priest further explained, “Charger continues to express its strong interest in resuming negotiations to purchase the property – its withdrawal was in accordance with the date set forth in the purchase and sale agreement.” 

Although BACC claims a win, it might be temporary. Regardless, the organization says it will continue opposing any sale of the land because Macedonia Baptist Church and Moses Cemetery are all that’s left of Bethesda’s once thriving Black community. In the 1960s, African Americans were forced to move out of Bethesda when they could not afford increasingly expensive housing developments being built in the area at the time.

To pay homage, BACC wants to have a memorial built on the site honoring the African American ancestors interred below the parking lot and the apartment complex. A memorial would enhance the spiritual connection between descendants and ancestors, said Reverend Adebayo, “so we can sit down, sing to them, [and] pray to them.”

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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