Officials in Montgomery County, Maryland have taken gentrification to a grisly conclusion as they work with a private investor to sell the Moses Macedonia African Cemetery, an early 20th century burial ground for African Americans.
The unthinkable, unconscionable, immoral, racist, and illegal is occurring in Bethesda, Maryland located in Montgomery County. For those who thought the buying and selling of Black bodies was made illegal by the 13th amendment, Montgomery County, Maryland is challenging that notion. To paraphrase Frederick Douglas, the 21st century selling and buying of Black flesh in Montgomery County, Maryland should "disgrace a nation of savages."
For more than 350 years, Montgomery County has displayed a history of kidnapping, raping, and murdering of Africans. The County, in collusion with a private investor, has placed Black people back on the auction block and plans to sell over 500 Black remains along with a high-rise building to Charger Ventures. Charger Ventures won the bid for the historic African/African American cemetery along with an apartment building for $51 million dollars. Strangely the losing bid was for $50,999,999.00! Moses Cemetery is being sold to Ms. Henry, the CEO of Charger Ventures, in a tradition that is quite familiar in Maryland where Black people were sold in the 17th and 18th century as a part of a general sale, for example, of hogs, horses, and Negroes. In the 21st Century, the equation has slightly changed with the current bill of sale indicating an apartment building, a parking lot, and a Black cemetery. In both instances, Black people are listed alongside inanimate and non-human objects. What Montgomery County still fails to recognize is that Black ancestors are human beings deserving of dignity, honor, and remembrance. The proposed “sale” continues the County’s long history of ignoring and dismissing the humanity of Black people. Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC), which owns Moses Macedonia African Cemetery, expects to complete the sale by late August to early September.
A lawsuit has been filed asking the Montgomery County District Court to stop the County’s Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC) from selling the Moses Macedonia African Cemetery before the Commission consults with descendants of those buried in the cemetery, and institutions that represent that descendant community.
The suit is being pursued by a number of descendants: Darold Cuba, the great, great grandson of Nelson Warren, Jr., who was a member of the River Road freed African American community and was buried in Moses Macedonia African Cemetery in 1903; Montani Wallace, related to Rosa Mason who is buried in Moses Macedonia African Cemetery on January 6, 1946. Ms. Wallace is also related to the founding pastor of Macedonia Baptist Church, Reverend William Mason, and to Geneva Mason, a member of Macedonia Baptist Church and a legendary figure in Montgomery County, where a street was recently named in her honor; and Nanette Hunter, the twice-great niece of Cora Botts. She and her husband, Jeremiah Botts, were buried in the Moses African Cemetery in 1935 and 1910, respectively.
Reverend Dr. Olusegun Adebayo, Pastor, Macedonia Baptist Church, and the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition (BACC) joined the families as the institutional representatives of the descendant community. Dr. Adebayo noted, “Across cultures, one common thread that ties humanity together is the social contract that burials are sacred and inviolable. I am confounded that the people and leaders of Montgomery County would allow the desecration of the resting place of our ancestors and the potential sale of their bodies. This is uncivilized and immoral.”
Many of those buried at Moses Macedonia African Cemetery were funeralized as members of Macedonia Baptist Church. Despite repeated requests, the developer, Ms. Henry has refused to respond to emails and calls from the community.
In a recent Washington Post article announcing the lawsuit, descendant Montani Wallace stated: “As a family, we lost a piece of our history and ancestral connection. The Moses Cemetery has been destroyed and the remains were thrown into a dump truck.” Faux progressive Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich who has fought against the Black community’s struggle to stop the erasure and desecration of Moses Cemetery, was unsurprisingly candid about his allegiance to private property developers. Reacting to the lawsuit, he is quoted in the Washington Post saying that he “disagrees with the basis of the lawsuit and thinks the law only applied when someone tried to change an aspect of the cemetery or remove it not when it is sold.” Elrich’s reaction and attitude are bereft of any understanding of the anguish of the descendants and the surviving community.
With that parsing of nonsense from the County Executive, the sheets are finally removed from the closet. Any doubt or naivete about where this Dixiecrat stands on the issue of protecting Black lives, history, and culture should be dispelled. What is abundantly clear is that Montgomery County is participating in the trafficking of human remains. This should raise red flags for those who understand the slippery slope of human history that can very quickly descend from the desecration of graves to wide scale attacks on the living.
According to Steven Lieberman, co-lead counsel for Plaintiffs: “HOC’s actions are outrageous. There is a Maryland statute that specifically requires any person or entity selling property that is or was used as a cemetery to approach the court for permission to make such a sale. The statute empowers the court to determine whether the sale and proposed use of the property is appropriate and, if so, to impose conditions on the sale. Here, HOC, despite being fully aware that the property was used for more than a century as a cemetery, ignored the Maryland statute and is planning to move forward with the sale in violation of the law. That misbehavior by officials of the HOC cannot stand unchallenged.”
Montgomery County Poor People’s Campaign leader David Mott offered: “the buying and selling of Black bodies in the 17th through the 19th centuries was called slavery. The continued indifference to the selling of Black people, their legacies, their memorials that is the Moses Macedonia African Cemetery is atrocious and an affront to civilized people. We must all resist this modern-day auction block merchandizing of people’s ancestors and the erasure of the critical lessons of history their lives can teach us. This sale must be stopped immediately in the interest of descendants so they might reclaim the land that holds their ancestors.” Speaking at the press conference, David Ward of the River Road UCC made this observation: “In a beloved community where many profess to be liberal and progressive, the sale of human bodies, dead or alive is reprehensible and must be resisted by all those who believe in justice and truth. For this to be happening in Montgomery County in the 21st century flies in the face of who we claim to be.”
The question is whether we, as a Black community, will allow this to happen. If we decide that we are not going to allow our ancestors to be bought and sold on the open market, then we will do whatever it takes to stop this sale. The question is whether we have the stomach to fight for our liberation. It’s clear that precedence is being set by this sale of Black flesh. Developers and white supremacists are prepared to fight, once again to own us, in the context of the prison industrial complex, and our ancestors, in death. Are we willing to fight back, or will we quietly surrender our bodies, our freedom, and our ancestors? What other community would passively allow their enemies to buy and sell their ancestors on the open market?
Are we prepared to actualize what Malcolm X said: “We declare our right on this earth to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.”
“At a time when our community is grappling with the unending killings of young Black people,” said Dr. Lucy Perez, “the inordinate number of young black men incarcerated in Maryland prisons, the proposed sale of our ancestors is a trigger for trauma that began during the period of enslavement. This proposed sale, if it materializes will create trauma and terror in our community that will adversely impact our health.”
The earth has been polluted by the construction at Moses Macedonia Cemetery and the soul of our County is now exposed for the world to see. “How can Montgomery County, with its long history of kidnapping and enslaving African people actually consider the buying and selling of African remains in the 21st Century? This is an act of shame and cowardice. It’s time to prove that we’re better than this” said Dr. Timothy Willard, historian.
Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2021/08/12/moses-cemetery-lawsuit-montgomery-county-enslaved-bodies/
Bethesda Magazine: https://bethesdamagazine.com/bethesda-beat/courts/bethesda-african-cemetery-coalition-suing-housing-opportunities-commission/
Dr. Marsha Adebayo is author of the Pulitzer Prize nominated: No FEAR: A Whistleblowers Triumph over Corruption and Retaliation at the EPA. She worked at the EPA for 18 years and blew the whistle on a US multinational corporation that endangered South African vanadium mine workers. Marsha's successful lawsuit led to the introduction and passage of the first civil rights and whistleblower law of the 21st century: The Notification of Federal Employees Anti-discrimination and Retaliation Act of 2002 (No FEAR Act). Marsha was inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame, March 2017. She is one of the hosts of Pacifica’s WPFW FM – What’s at Stake radio show.