BACC protestor takes photos of developers unearthing burial sites of African Americans interred at Moses African Cemetery. Photo courtesy of BACC Facebook

Missing bones. Maryland activists continue fight to preserve African American cemetery, Rep. Jamie Raskin will visit historical site on Juneteenth

4 mins read

The Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition (BACC) plans to observe Juneteenth the same way as any other day: organizing to stop developers from further desecrating an African American burial ground with historical significance.

On Monday, June 19, BACC will host a celebration that continues their tireless campaign to save what is left of the Moses African Cemetery, in Montgomery County, Maryland. One of the oldest documented African American burial grounds, it has become a contentious site between organizers who want to preserve the graveyard and government-backed developers who have been building on it.

BACC posted that the Montgomery County Executive, Marc Elrich, said that the organization’s leader, Marsha Coleman-Adebayo “is ‘fighting over something that doesn’t exist’ and is ‘lying’ about Moses [cemetery].”

BACC calls Elrich’s claims as “slavery denial.” The dismissive gestures have piled up over the years. One of which the county did not inform family members of those connected to persons buried in the cemetery. When descendants said their ancestors were buried at the development site, the response was that a graveyard never existed there.

In a previous rally to save the cemetery, Dr. Adebayo said, “This is about the erasure of the history of Black people in Montgomery County. Black people built Montgomery County, just like we built the U.S.”

Unearthing racism

Already, a paved parking lot was laid directly over the burial grounds decades ago. But, a recent archaeological study asserted that the site still contained the remains of freed enslaved persons and Black families spanning from before the Civil War. Yet, Montgomery County representatives say there never was a graveyard, even though voluminous documentation contests their claims. Some of the evidence includes the oral testimonies of those still living who once romped around in the cemetery as an ad hoc playground for Black children.

Currently, Montgomery County’s Housing Opportunities Commissions is attempting to sell a parcel of the old cemetery to investment firm, Charger Ventures, for their plans to build a dog park. However, the sale is on hold due to a temporary restraining order granted by Karla Smith, a Montgomery County Circuit judge.

In her decision, Judge Smith wrote, “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, the Court has an obligation to ensure that such resting place is respected.”

Montgomery County, just outside of Washington D.C., is predominantly white and one of the wealthiest counties in the country. Where the burial ground sits, in Bethesda, African Americans make up about 4 percent of the population. At one time, there was a robust community called Crow Hill or River Road, which locals said was down one of the main thoroughfares, now named River Road. That is the location of Moses African Cemetery, a gravesite for those who lived in the area.

A community of mostly homeowning, working professionals, sprang up shortly after the Civil War. Crow Hill thrived until residents were totally pushed out by the 1960s. In a story by Bethesda Magazine, their departure was fueled by a series of “unscrupulous” buying tactics by white developers in the 1950s.

The only thing that held the test of time and violent gentrification was Macedonia Baptist Church. A modest-sized religious community with some who are descendants of Crow Hill, have been the backbone in the David-and-Goliath fight against moneyed-corporations and federal, government, and county employees.

In 2017, the church’s leader Rev. Olusegun Adebayo, wrote to then Montgomery County’s planning director, Gwen Wright, “the sanctity and sacredness of their resting place is not subject to negotiations.”

In his proposal, Rev. Adebayo pointed out that the parcel of land marked as the site of Moses African Cemetery, made up less than 1 percent of the full development tract. He proposed that community members in support of preserving the grounds suggested a museum or park. That idea was dismissed along with other preservationist solutions over the years.

Both developers and local municipal executives moved the agenda forward in spite of the growing opposition, but have met opposition every step of the way. From court battles to continuous protests, and even a band of clergy seeking to call out Montgomery County’s tactics, Ark Republic has covered BACC’s years-long campaign to stop developing efforts.

Launching a series of lawsuits, BACC has been the main disruptor of city plans to expand Bethesda’s new wave of white wealth. In their fight, they also pointed out that the municipality failed to take the necessary steps to sanction a build on top of a cemetery. As well, BACC showed that a tombstone and human remains were unearthed following construction workers digging at the sites of plots where the old cemetery stood. To investigate their validity, the materials were ordered to be studied by an archaeological team, but Montgomery County administrator, Elrich, said the bones went missing.

At this juncture in their crusade, BACC hopes they have an ally in Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD). An elected official noted as a Civil Rights champion, is scheduled to walk Moses African Cemetery and speak at BACC’s Juneteenth event.

The first elected official to tour the resting place of families that span as far back into American slavery, the congressman’s pending appearance took more than nudging.

In December 2022, BACC confronted Rep. Raskin on what they saw as his silence regarding the issue of Black cemetery desecration in Maryland. Although the representative promised to meet with BACC members and concerned constituents about the matter, they allege he ignored their emails and letters requesting to secure a formal meeting. In a released statement, BACC planned to protest at his office this past May for what they described as Rep. Raskin’s “intentional nescience of racist and criminal desecration of Moses Cemetery.”

Kaia Shivers covers news, features and the diaspora.

The pressure proved to be heard. BACC’s Juneteenth celebration takes place at 2 p.m. at the Moses Cemetery located at 5214 River Road in Montgomery County, Maryland. Ark Republic was not able to secure a response from Rep. Raskin or Executive Elrich by press time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Previous Story

How a Black community brought affordable health care and clean water to rural South Carolina in the 1970s

Next Story

Behind the red drink on Juneteenth is rooted in rituals older than we think

Latest from Race and Ethnicity