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Historic Black cemetery buried below parking lot at center of legal dispute

"Developers literally built their wealth on top of other people's graves," said the Rev. William J. Barber II, who is supporting a coalition trying to preserve the Maryland site.
A demonstrator speaks in support of the Moses African Cemetery in Bethesda. Md., on Sept. 10.
A demonstrator speaks in support of the Moses African Cemetery in Bethesda. Md., on Sept. 10.Gail Rebhan

In the shadow of a 15-story apartment complex overlooking a suburb of Washington, D.C., an asphalt-paved parking lot is at the heart of a development dispute.

The conflict is over what community members in Montgomery County, Maryland, say lie inconspicuously below: potentially hundreds of bodies of freed slaves and their descendants, buried in what was once a cemetery in the early 20th century.

"These are people who were so oppressed and so discarded and so disrespected in life, and now, even in death, they meet the same fate," said Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, president of the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition, which formed in 2019 and whose members are seeking to preserve what is known as the Moses African Cemetery.

Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, president of the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition. Gail Rebhan

A lawsuit filed last month by the coalition seeks to block the county's pending $50 million sale of the apartment complex property, Westwood Tower, to the investment firm Charger Ventures. The suit alleges that Montgomery County's Housing Opportunities Commission is violating state law by failing to get court approval for the sale, which is required when cemetery property is involved.

The coalition was victorious this month when a Montgomery County judge issued a temporary restraining order blocking the sale until at least Monday, when another hearing is scheduled. A judge will decide whether to grant an injunction, which would further prevent the sale until the lawsuit is resolved. Otherwise, the deal could move forward.

It's unclear what might become of the parking lot property itself. Steven Lieberman, a coalition attorney, told the judge at this month's hearing that he believes a developer could end up exploiting the site.

"The developer is not buying that property to leave a parking lot in place," Lieberman said, according to a transcript. "He's not buying that property to build a museum."

Westwood Tower.Google Maps

The Housing Opportunities Commission declined to comment. Charger Ventures didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

The friction in Montgomery County, one of the wealthiest in the U.S. and where white people make up the largest racial group, is only one example of a larger effort nationwide to investigate and preserve historic Black gravesites, many at risk of being forgotten or destroyed — if they're discovered at all — said Lynn Rainville, an anthropologist and director of institutional history and the museums at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.

The sites are endangered for a variety of reasons, she said — development, a lack of historical record-keeping, no political willpower to save them or even climate change.

"While maybe this issue isn't at the top of people's list because we need to focus on the living, it shows that systemic racism permeates everything," Rainville said, "from birth to death and burials."

'We lost a piece of our history'

On a recent afternoon this month, they sang spirituals, beat on African drums and marched with signs: "Black Lives Matter in Life and in Death."

The regular protests around Westwood Tower have attracted dozens of members and supporters of the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition.

"What happened to respecting hallowed ground?" asked Montani Wallace, who said her late husband had a relative buried at Moses Cemetery. "As a family, we lost a piece of our history and ancestral connection."

Supporters of the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition perform Sept. 10 to raise awareness of the Moses African Cemetery in Bethesda, Md.Gail Rebhan

The cemetery is what's left of a historic Black community in Bethesda's River Road enclave. The chapter of a Black fraternal society, White's Tabernacle No. 39, bought the 1-acre parcel in 1911.

The chapter had operated a cemetery, which historical records indicate included about 200 graves, and members planned to relocate them to its new property. Many of those interred at Moses Cemetery were described as freed slaves and people who once worked among the farms and tobacco plantations in the area before the Civil War.

In 1958, as Black families along River Road were squeezed out by development, White's Tabernacle sold the cemetery property. Part of the land became the home of the parking lot for Westwood Tower, built in 1968.

While records about what was done to the graves are murky, people have recalled stories of construction workers' unearthing bones and dumping the remains dozens of yards away near a storm sewer.

For decades, the former cemetery site was lost to history. In 2016, Macedonia Baptist Church, the "sole surviving cultural institution" of the local Black community, began an advocacy campaign to commemorate the parcel, according to a historical report in 2018.

While Lieberman said no one has used radar equipment or dug up the land to determine how many graves there may be, there is enough evidence through records to indicate the existence of bodies, estimating that there as many as 500.

During this month's hearing, Frederick A. Douglas, a Housing Opportunities Commission attorney, questioned the coalition's urgency about stopping a sale and the validity of the historical evidence.

He lampooned the coalition's messaging: "'I've got 500 graves under this parking lot, and they're going to be desecrated by this mean, bad developer and HOC, this entity that does things in the dark at night.'

"To say that HOC is continuing that evilness by selling this particular property that has graves ... is a bit much," Douglas added.

Supporters of the Moses African Cemetery in Bethesda, Md., march past Macedonia Baptist Church on Sept. 10 to protest a plan to sell the land. Gail Rebhan

The coalition has urged Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, a Democrat, to stop the sale.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Elrich had held meetings about Moses Cemetery with the community. He said he would welcome continued discussions and called on county park and planning officials to fully engage with residents.

But his hands are tied, he said, because he doesn't have the power to set the conditions of a sale. He would favor an independent assessment to accurately record what lies underneath the land, which he said must be memorialized.

"There's a long history of destroying Black history and destroying the remnants of their culture and their memory," Elrich said. "It's important to get this right."

'A metaphor for the larger narrative'

Archaeologists and community groups throughout the country are undertaking similar preservation efforts.

Unmarked Black graves have been discovered in places like Elizabeth, New Jersey; Clearwater, Florida; and Clemson, South Carolina. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, bodies have been exhumed over the past year potentially connected to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, one of the worst episodes of racial violence in U.S. history.

Pinning down an exact number of such sites remains difficult.

Rainville said that for every white cemetery that is known, there should be one for African Americans, as well. But the numbers don't equal out, and research indicates that cemeteries have been lost to expanding highways and other projects.

"There are zero rules on how a property should be preserved," she said, although federal laws today help to ensure that human remains that are found aren't desecrated.

Some academics have called for federal protection of historic Black burial sites modeled after the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a 1990 law that says Indigenous human remains and funerary objects "must at all times be treated with dignity and respect."

In December, the Senate passed bipartisan legislation to create a nationwide network to account for and preserve African American burial grounds. But a similar bill was held up in the House.

The Rev. William J. Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign, which advocates for economic justice, is lending his support in Montgomery County, where, he said, more conversations are needed to rectify the wrongs against Black families and their ancestors.

"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," he said.

While Barber said developers were able to profit in Bethesda from properties that once belonged to Black people, a full accounting must determine who benefited and what the cost of repayment to descendants would be.

"Developers literally built their wealth on top of other people's graves," Barber said. "Think about the ugliness of that."