Activists secure a legal victory in the fight to save the Moses African Cemetery in Bethesda, Maryland.
A Montgomery County Circuit Court ruled Wednesday, September 1st, 2021, that Montgomery County may not sell the land that includes the historic Moses African Cemetery in Bethesda, Maryland. Judge Karla Smith issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) forbidding the sale of the cemetery, currently owned by the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC.) This ruling is seen as historic because of the rarity of communities prevailing in court over multi-million-dollar corporations and government agencies. The sale of the cemetery took place without a hearing or public notice, essentially under the cover of darkness. The next step is a hearing on a preliminary injunction which will be held Sept. 27th, 2021. A question central to the outcome is how many times will black bodies be placed on the auction block and sold – whether dead or alive?
The Moses African Cemetery, where more than 500 enslaved and free people were buried, now lies under the parking lot of the Westbard Towers, built by developers in the 1960s. The cemetery served the historic African River Road Community in Bethesda – a community that survived slavery but was wiped out in the 1960’s through racist development/gentrification plans in collusion with county officials and agencies leaving Macedonia Baptist Church as the sole surviving church and institution representing the descendant community. Montgomery County Executive, Marc Elrich, claims that he is powerless to stop the sale.
The historic Black River Road community in Bethesda, Maryland is a living laboratory for the study of U.S. structural and foundational white supremacy and the racist violence carried out against the Black people who once lived there, and against the Black community that worships there today. A study of Moses Macedonia African Cemetery and the displaced African American community inherently explores the monetization and trafficking of black bodies, the sexual violation endured by Black girls and women during slavery via the corporate breeding system and the desecration of Moses Macedonia African Cemetery. In every respect, Montgomery County has shown a callous disrespect and disregard for the humanity of African people.
The HOC, a quasi-government agency had planned to sell the cemetery for more than $51 million to a white-owned private land developer, Charger Ventures, LLC, on September 14.
“Among my most sacred duties,” said the Rev. Dr. Segun Adebayo, Pastor of Macedonia Baptist Church and a plaintiff in the suit, “is committing the souls of the deceased, and ensuring the sanctity of their burial ground. Because of HOC, we can’t do that at our Moses Macedonia African Cemetery. The Black community literally has to watch the desecration of our ancestral land from behind the fence of a nearby McDonalds. This is equivalent to the community sitting at the back of the bus. We have trouble, at times, deciding whether we live in Montgomery, Alabama or Montgomery County, Maryland. The racism is as blatant around this issue as forcing African people to drink from separate water fountains. However, this ruling from the court is a small but crucial first step toward racial justice for the living and the dead in Montgomery County.”
Steven Lieberman, co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs argued that “HOC’s actions are outrageous and violate the law. Maryland statutes specifically require that any person or entity selling property for non-burial purposes that is or was used as a burial ground approach the court for permission to make such a sale. The court, after taking testimony from members of the affected community, can then determine whether the sale should be permitted, and if so, under what terms and conditions.”
"HOC is fully aware that the property was used for more than a century as a cemetery, and yet it has ignored the law and is planning to move forward with the sale in violation of the law. Such misbehavior cannot stand unchallenged. Judge Smith’s careful and well-reasoned decision, issued from the bench after a two-hour hearing, properly evaluated the evidence and the statutes protecting the sanctity of burial grounds and blocked the sale.”
Poor Peoples’ Campaign leader, Rev. William Barber, will express his support of the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalitions struggle to end the desecration of Moses Macedonia Cemetery. Rev Barber will speak via Zoom to a rally at the Macedonia Baptist Church in Bethesda on Friday, September 10th at 11am. The public is invited to access the speech via live streaming or in person.
Leaders of the Maryland State Poor Peoples’ Campaign also pledged their support. Rabbi Alana Suskin and Rev. Angela Martin, Co-Chairs of the Maryland State Poor People's Campaign said: "We stand solidly behind the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition's struggle to end the continued desecration of Moses Macedonia African Cemetery."
The visit from Rev. Barber and Rev. Dr. Theoharis comes at a critical time in the years-long campaign by the BACC, the Macedonia Baptist Church and the Descendent Community to win back the land that was among the first freed African communities in Montgomery County.
Montani Wallace, a plaintiff in the case and a descendent whose ancestors were buried in the Moses Cemetery upon hearing about the TRO, said " I thank God for this victory, and I know that my ancestors are rejoicing in heaven. As a family, we lost a piece of our history and ancestral connection,” Wallace, whose deceased husband was a descendant of a relative buried at the cemetery, said at a recent news conference. “Great-Great-Aunt Rosa lived in this community and was buried in the Moses Cemetery. …The Moses Cemetery has been destroyed.” The Court’s ruling will hopefully inspire Black communities around the country, indeed the world, to continue to fight for stolen Black land and sacred spaces.
The first National Conference on the Preservation & History of African American Sacred Burial Grounds will take place virtually on October 2nd, 2021. The goal of the Conference is to pay homage to African American ancestors by creating a network of non-governmental and independent organizations determined to safeguard the cultural, historic, and archaeological integrity of African American communities. The Conference plans to share information and platforms that will allow members of the Black community to efficiently communicate with others to defend Black lands against white private and public sector encroachment. For more information, please leave a message regarding your interest in the conference at: https://bethesdaafricancemeterycoalition.net/contact/
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.