Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition protest The photos from Saturday's protest across the street from a home in which a Democratic fundraiser took place on October 27, 2023. Rep. Raskin and Maryland County Comissioner Marc Elrich were said to be in attendance. They did not come outside to talk to the protestors, according to Marsha Adebayo. Photo credit: Gail Rehban

Maryland Supreme Court will hear Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition’s appeal to stop development of historical burial ground

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Maryland’s highest court will hear a petition from the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition (BACC)  to stop a property sale of a paved-over  historical cemetery holding the remains of Africans and formerly enslaved persons.   

Toilet paper, mattresses, and discarded furniture litter a parcel of land that was once the burial grounds for Black Marylanders. The latest discovery by BACC, a multi-racial organizing group fighting to stop the sale of the property, alleges that the historical site has slowly turned into “a dumping ground by Montgomery County residents.” For them, this is a “heinous and anti-Black sacrilege” practice allowed by the “lack of action taken by government officials.” 

While the “county has surrounded Moses Cemetery with surveillance cameras,” to eye citizens who attempt to access the graveyard mostly buried under concrete, BACC alleges that the authorities fail to identify polluters. Overall, the activist coalition wants the grounds to be respected as a sacred resting place with rich stories in America’s annals. However, the Maryland-National Park and Planning Commission wants to proceed in developing the property.

“We want that parking lot removed. It’s up to the coalition and the Macedonia Baptist Church to decide what they will do with (the property),” Steven Lieberman, a partner with the Rothwell Figg law firm in Washington, D.C., told Ark Republic. Liberman, who is representing the coalition pro bono, said the land could be the site of a memorial for the individuals buried there.  BACC hopes their next day in court will find their complaints valid.

Advocates for the ancestors

Nearly six years ago, the BACC battle for the Moses Macedonia Cemetery in Bethesda began.  At this time, 1784 Capital Holdings purchased the land from Montgomery County, Maryland’s Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC). The commission  provides affordable housing to low and moderate income county residents.  Montgomery County is where suburban Bethesda is located.

The holdings firm  planned to construct a self-storage building on the property, but BACC contended that the land contained part of the Moses Macedonia Cemetery. In the 1960s, a section of the parcel was cemented over for the Westwood Tower apartment building parking lot. A historical landmark, the cemetery holds the remains of Black people freed from enslavement and their descendants. Owned by the Macedonian Baptist Church in the late 19th to early 20th Centuries,  the religious institution  served a thriving Black community on River Road.

For years, BACC has been  successful in blocking the sale of the land to another interested party, Charger Ventures. BACC sued the investment firm, and in 2021, Maryland Circuit Court Judge Karla Smith granted a preliminary injunction that halted the sale. Judge Smith later issued a permanent injunction. 

Score one for developers

Earlier this year, on June 28, Maryland’s appellate court ruled on a state statute regarding whether the HOC needed court approval to sell property which included a cemetery. The court determined that the Commission did not require court permission unless developers sought to make the sale free of claims on the land from descendants of deceased in the cemetery.

“The [Appellate] Court was confronted with two scenarios,” Marsha Coleman- Adebayo, BACC’s president, told The Afro newspaper. “One was to look at this case through the lens of the community that was targeted with genocide and its descendants, or to look at this case through the lens of the developers. And the court decided to look at this case strictly through the lens of developers. What the court determined is that it is now open season on Black burial grounds.”

Increasing momentum

Throughout the legal actions surrounding the cemetery, Adebayo has been working nonstop to increase support for BACC and its mission. The coalition has an ongoing letter writing campaign. It asks people to address letters to Montgomery County officials demanding that they “stop the desecration” of the burial site. 

To ante up their efforts, BACC partnered with Ben and Jerry’s ice cream company to urge its customers to back the effort. “I stand with BACC and its noble struggle to stop the desecration of Moses Macedonia African Cemetery,” Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben and Jerry’s, says in a statement.  “Looking the other way can not be an option in a civilized society. Black Lives Matter in Life and Death.”

Additional burial grounds

Adebayo said the portions of the cemetery under a parking lot, labeled parcels 175 and 177, are not the only areas that contain sections of the cemetery. There may be two more areas, parcels 191 and 242, that predate the Civil War, where plantation owners threw the bodies of Black people in mass graves. 

“The River Road plantations were ‘breeding’ plantations, where enslaved Black people were forced to have babies (to increase the number of the enslaved). Children were raped. Sixty percent of all the enslaved children died before the age of 10.” Little girls who were too young to be pregnant were dying from bleeding out from miscarriages, she said. 

The other parcels are not part of the Maryland Supreme Court petition, but they could illustrate that some of the remains from the Moses Macedonia Cemetery were displaced over time. Research on the possibility was conducted in 2015 by Sandra Youla, a Montgomery County Planning Senior Planner. It indicated that sewer construction in 1930 and the 1960s and the Westwood Tower construction could have shifted some of the remains to adjacent plots of land. 

To validate their claims and research, BACC wanted the primary parcels professionally tested by archaeologists. In 2017, the company with plans to construct the self-storage building said BACC could have its own archaeologist examine the former burial site. Subsequently, they enlisted the services of Dr. Michael Blakey, National Endowment for the Humanities Professor of Anthropology at Virginia’s William and Mary University. However, he was given limited  access to the site except under certain conditions: BACC could no longer hold demonstrations, and Dr. Blakey could only visit the burial grounds every other week.

In the examination, Dr. Blakey reviewed photos of the site and identified what he believed was skeletal material in one of the photos. Yet, to this day, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich insists there is no cemetery under the Westwood Tower Apartments parking lot. Angry and frustrated, BACC recently dumped bones at the podium where Elrich was speaking during a public budget meeting. 

Adebayo and the coalition believe that more than 200 bones were excavated from the primary parcel. They say the bones were illegally taken to a warehouse in Gainesville, Virginia, and to Towson University, located about 52 miles north in Maryland.

Elrich isn’t the only elected official drawing BACC’s ire. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), whose congressional district includes most of Montgomery County, was asked by BACC to involve the FBI in stopping development projects on the Moses Macedonia Cemetery site. “He said BACC should fill out the FBI form and he would send it to them,” said Adebayo.   Other than that, she says, Congressman Raskin has done nothing to help protect the cemetery.

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

Disappointments and setbacks notwithstanding, Adebayo looks forward to BACC’s day in court next January. “We’ll send buses to take the community and other organizations to the Maryland Supreme Court hearing,” she said. The hearing is scheduled for January 2024. No date has been set.

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