Marsha Coleman-Adebayo protests developers at site of Bethesda African Cemetery, a historical Black burial ground in Bethesda, Maryland. Photo credit: Gail Rebhan

The battle over a historical Maryland cemetery continues as organizers fighting to protect the site await Maryland Supreme Court decision

6 mins read

A party honoring the years of work to preserve a historical burial ground brought cheer, but took a turn as a debate ensued over the Hamas-Israeli conflict. That was the beginning of a short-lived highlight when organizers learned of an environmental issue at the site.

Supporters and members of the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition (BACC) held a festive Black cultural program, awards presentation and auction on Saturday, January 13, at the Busboys and Poets restaurant and bookstore in Takoma Park, Maryland. They were celebrating BACC’s January 8 hearing before the Maryland Supreme Court. It was the first time in the U.S. that a group argued in a high court about preserving a Black burial ground.

The organization asked the court to prevent developers from constructing anything on land under which there is a long-lost Black cemetery in Bethesda, Maryland. Although there is no ruling yet, the gathering was elated that the state’s highest court heard BACC’s plea. Also, BACC used the occasion to award individuals who contributed their legal and anthropology expertise to protecting the cemetery.

On Wednesday, September 27, 2023 BACC attended a public meeting held by Maryland County Executive Marc Elrich. In protest of the official’s office taking bones from a historical burial site, the group scattered a simulated skeleton parts on the ground. Photo credit: Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition

A decade of struggle 

BACC’s legal challenges and its efforts to raise public awareness about the issue have been long and arduous. The organization has staged demonstrations against any buildings or businesses being placed on what is now referred to as parcel 175. The land was once the site of the Moses Macedonia Cemetery on Bethesda’s Westbard Avenue. 

BACC estimates that the remains of 200 or more Black people who were enslaved during the 19th Century, and their descendants, are buried there. The cemetery belonged to Macedonia Baptist Church. The cemetery and the church were the foundations of a thriving Black community. But the community began to disappear after World War II. Between the late 1940s and the 1960s, white families moved into the area, displacing the Black residents. The newcomers built housing which was too expensive for the previous occupants. During the 1960s the cemetery also disappeared. It was paved over, and made into a parking lot for the Westwood Tower Apartments. 

“When we started this, Montgomery County tried to tell us that there was no such thing as a (hidden) cemetery,” Dr. Marsha Adebayo, BACC’s president, told the Busboys and Poets audience. 

In 2021, the county’s Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC), which provides housing for low-and-moderate-income families, attempted to sell the property to developers. Among them was Charger Ventures, which was set to buy the property for $50 million. BACC blocked the sale when it filed a lawsuit in August 2021. 

In October of that year, Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Karla Smith granted a permanent injunction. Discouraged by the BACC lawsuit, Charger Ventures decided to forego purchasing the property.

In June 2023, Maryland’s appellate court ruled that a court’s permission was not needed for the HOC to sell the property to developers even if the property contains a cemetery. The exception, said the court, is if developers wanted to make the sale free of claims on the land from descendants of the deceased buried in the cemetery. During the January 8 hearing before the Maryland Supreme Court, BACC argued that property containing a cemetery should not be bought or sold at all.

“We needed a legal team to help us with this,” said Adebayo to the audience. She noted that legal representation costs a lot of money, “and we don’t have rich friends in high places.” Adebayo thanked BACC’s lead attorney, Steven Lieberman, a partner in the Washington, D.C. legal firm Rothwell Figg, for his no-cost legal representation.  “We depend on our community for funds and resources,” explained Adebayo. “The community paid for all of the buses that took people to the Maryland Supreme Court in Annapolis [ to view the hearing].” 

Party with a purpose

Meanwhile, despite not having a definitive ruling from Maryland’s high court, BACC held its celebration, which just happened to have components of a fundraiser, award show and sing-along. 

One of BACC’s members picked up his acoustic guitar. Joined by longtime D.C. activist and singer Luci Murphy, the two led the audience in singing “Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on!”  When they finished, BACC supporter Karen Wilson Ama-Echefu asked the audience to sing the chorus with her of a song she composed, based on a  chant she heard at BACC demonstrations: “This is the scene of a crime,” she sang, describing Montgomery County’s attempts to sell the cemetery parcel as “criminal.”   

Included in the festivities, a mother and daughter duo performed an African dance. Supporter Sheila Brown read and performed a statement by Amy Jacques Garvey, the late widow of 20th Century Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey, concerning Black women’s activism. 

African clothing and other items were auctioned off to raise money for BACC’s organizing needs.

The Hamas-Israeli war debate becomes unintended visitor

Surprisingly, the celebration was briefly sidetracked by the appearance of Jill Stein, a Presidential candidate from the Green Party, who also ran for the office in 2016. “I’m just here to support the work Marsha’s (Adebayo) doing,” said Stein. “What’s going on with erasing the cemetery is part of a [fight] against the African American community.” 

Stein compared the fight to what she called the genocide committed by Israelis against Palestinian civilians in Israel’s war against Hamas for its attack on Israel last October 7. “What about the 1200 Israelis killed in the Hamas attack, and Hamas’ Israeli hostages?”  BACC’s attorney Steven Lieberman, who is Jewish, shouted from the audience. 

Some of the celebration attendants who had participated in a mass march and rally for Palestine in Washington, D.C. earlier that day, stood up, waved Palestinian flags, and chanted, “Free, free Palestine!” as Lieberman tried to talk over them. “Steven Lieberman is our guest,” said Reverend Olusegun Adebayo, minister of Macedonia Baptist Church to the audience. “Show him respect.” 

Lieberman said that Israel “is not an apartheid state” and that Palestinians participate in various aspects of Israel’s government. Stein continued to decry what she said was Israel’s violation of Palestinians’ human rights. “I speak as a Jew who was raised with the notion that genocide would never happen again,” she said.

Later in the program, Lieberman was presented with a framed certificate of appreciation from BACC for his legal expertise in protecting Moses Macedonia Cemetery. As he accepted his award, he mentioned his reaction to Stein’s comments and told the audience that it should know more about the “facts” of the Hamas-Israeli war. 

Attorney Mark Whitener, a partner at VLP Law Group was also awarded for writing a friend of the court brief for the January 8 Maryland Supreme Court hearing. 

Anthropologist who identified cemetery area honored 

The awkwardness brought on by the Hamas-Israeli war discussion was dispelled when the anthropologist who assisted BACC was called to the stage to accept his appreciation certificate. Dr. Michael Blakey, National Endowment for the Humanities Professor of Anthropology in Virginia’s William and Mary University, had investigated the property for indicators that a cemetery was beneath the Westwood Tower Apartments parking lot. 

Blakey said that as the co-chair of the Commission on Ethical Treatment of Human Remains, he has traveled to the African nation of Senegal, to Japan, and to other countries which face similar situations regarding cemetery preservation. “[Even] the Smithsonian’s position is that it will repatriate remains [ in its possession],” Blakey said. 

As the scientific director of the New York African Burial Ground Project from 1992 to 2009, he took great care with the remains. “I only analyzed skeletons and skeletal material with permission from the descendants of the enslaved and free Black people,” who were buried between the 1630s to 1795. 

“We struggle with a dilemma: the human desire to develop [build or construct], and the human right to dignity,” said Blakey. “I’m so glad that BACC’s court case is moving the way it has, and the world’s growing concern about cemetery preservation is moving the way it is.” 

The Maryland Supreme Court judges could take months to rule on BACC’s case, Marsha Adebayo told The Ark. “I think we have a good chance.”  If the court rules in favor of HOC and developers, she said,  “we’ll be back in the streets until we win.”

Bethesda African Cemetery underwater after pipes discharged water on top of disputed land. Photo credit: Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition

Another battle

While BACC and its supporters celebrated the day, the contentious war is far from over. Weeks later, the organization discovered that the historical parcel was flooded in late January. BACC alleges that the deluge of water was an intentional action. According to a press release by BACC, the group attempted to submit a police report about the incident, but Montgomery County refused to allow them.

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

At some point, pipes were placed at the site. According to Elreich who was questioned by Adebayo at a Black History Month program on February 6, the county executive confirmed that water was discharged, but it was not an effort in destroying the land. Uncertain if the water from the flood carries contaminants or other erosive chemicals, BACC members believe that the impact of the flood may have damaged the burial ground even more. 

BACC has called for an FBI investigation into the flooding.

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