Marsha Adebayo of Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition speaks with Rep. Jamie Raskin (MD-D) at the site of dispute between BACC and the Maryland County Housing Commission. Photo credit: Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition Facebook page

Lawsuit to save a historical, Black Maryland cemetery goes to the State’s high courts today

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For years, the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition (BACC) has been fearlessly fighting to stop the Maryland Housing Commission from selling land that they say contains a burial ground holding the remains of African Americans stemming as far back as the post-Antebellum south. On Monday, they will have their day in Maryland Supreme Court.

Oral arguments begin for BACC versus MOC, a case where a Maryland-based activist group works to preserve what is left of Moses Macedonia African Cemetery. According to BACC, the case’s January 8 hearing marks the first time in U.S. history that a complaint by descendants of a Black community to save a burial ground, will be heard by a state’s high court.

“We of the faith community are looking to the Court to end the dehumanization of African Americans,” said Olusegun Adebayo, the pastor of Macedonia Baptist Church, the place of worship that once owned the land where the cemetery sits. Rev. Olusegun is a member of BACC, a collective of progeny of those buried in the graveyard and their allies.

At the heart of their lawsuit, the Maryland County Housing Commission attempts to hand over an apartment complex to private developers in a $51 million deal. What has been discovered at Westwood Tower, during its construction in the 1960s, the paving of its parking lot partially covered the historical burial site. Plus, evidence provided by an archaeologist hired by BACC shows the site still contains remains, of which, some have been improperly removed. If sold, BACC asserts that the complex, located in Bethesda, Maryland, will desecrate a graveyard serving as the resting place to members of a once thriving, post-Emancipation, Black middle-class community. 

Known as the River Road African community, the Crow Hill or River Road district consisted of mostly home-owning, working professionals that sprang up shortly after the Civil War. The area boasted a list of residents—from craft-persons, educators and laborers—who helped rebuild Washington, DC and its metro after the war caused significant damage to the country’s southern infrastructure.

Crow Hill thrived until residents were totally pushed out by the 1960s from unrelenting real estate scams and violent tactics from local whites, law enforcement and civic officials. Historians cite similar tactics that happened to flourishing, Black self-sustaining towns, settlements and cities across the U.S. from the late 19th Century and on.

However, county officials contend that evidence fails to show a burial ground at the site of dispute. Specifically, Montgomery County Executive, Marc Elrich, asserts there is no cemetery under the development. He even surmised that BACC’s president, Marsha Coleman-Adebayo was lying about its existence. On the other hand, Dr. Coleman-Adebayo wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that developers and county officials have consistently shown apathy regarding the matter. She along with several other members of BACC were arrested at a county commission meeting in January 2019 for disorderly conduct when they brought symbolic artifacts reminding attendees of the unearthed and buried bones they disregarded.

“It has often been said that the strength of a society is measured by how it treats its weakest members,” commented Steven Lieberman, a partner with the Rothwell Figg law firm in Washington, D.C who is representing the coalition pro bono. “In this case, the highest court in Maryland . . . will have the opportunity to address how that principle applies to the 200 bodies in the Moses African Cemetery that are presently interred under a parking lot.”

A portion of the argument that will be made by Lieberman is that Macedonia Baptist Church and BACC should decide what should happen to the remains of the burial ground.

For more than half a decade, BACC has held a succession of demonstrations, vigils, letter writing campaigns and press meetings calling attention to their efforts to preserve Moses Macedonia African Cemetery. From protesting in front of the homes of County officials to demanding local representatives involve themselves in the issue, BACC’s efforts have led to Maryland’s High Court where they say it is a “fight for the dignity and humanity of our ancestors.”

Note to the reader: Ark Republic has been following the case of the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition since 2020 with Margaret Summers covering most of the updates.

Kaia Shivers covers news, features and the diaspora.

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