Continued Desecration of Bethesda African Cemetery: The Community Fights Back!

By BAR Editor and Columnist, Dr. Marsha Adebayo

In the parts of the US which were once slave country, from New England to Florida to Texas, the burial grounds of African slaves are being uncovered, often by commerical developers intent on building yet another badly needed strip mall.  In Bethesday MD, a suburb of the nation's capital, our columnist Dr. Abadeyo recounts the struggle of that community to protect the resting places of their, and our ancestors.

Continued Desecration of Bethesda African Cemetery: The Community Fights Back!

By BAR Editor and Columnist, Dr. Marsha Adebayo

Hundreds of Montgomery County residence demonstrated on Sunday, February 12th demanding that Montgomery County Parks and Planning Commission reschedule a February 23rd Hearing that would grant Equity One, approval to build a garage on the Bethesda African Burial Ground. Montgomery County Planning Office, has recommended approval of this plan. Bethesda, Maryland is a suburb of Washington, DC. Approval by the Commission of the Equity One plan may lead to the continued desecration of the Bethesda African Cemetery. A demonstration will take place on Thursday, February 16th at the Montgomery County Parks and Planning Commission at 2pm to protest the continued disregard and disrespect of African American people and their descendants.

Equity One, a financial powerhouse sits on the New York Stock Exchange and is worth over 3 Billion dollars. The corporation has proposed building a garage on top of hundreds of African remains. In the mid-1950’s, developers, ostensibly in collusion with Montgomery County paved over the cemetery in the process of building a large apartment complex and turned the cemetery into a driveway. Tombstones were trashed and discarded. Oral history indicates that bodies were found in the process of developing the property:

At least one eyewitness has recalled construction workers building the Westwood Tower apartments at 5401 Westbard Avenue stopping work 12 times, after encountering 12 graves during excavation for the building. After the 12th stoppage, someone at the construction site ordered workers to no longer stop, and to illegally relocate any further human remains found to an unknown location downward from the rear of the property. The specific location, as well as the fate of the first 12 sets of remains, is unknown at this time.”

Questions abound: Where are these twelve skeletal remains? Were other remains excavated, and if so, where are they? How many remains still exist at the proposed site? For the Bethesda River Road African Burial Ground activists, simply too many unresolved issues to allow the Montgomery County Parks and Planning Commission to rubber stamp an approval to their corporate counterpart, Equity One.

Activists on behalf of Macedonia Baptist Church, the religious centerpiece of the River Road African community, the River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Little Falls Waterfall Alliance, the City of Somerset, BlackisBackCoalition, Popular Resistance and other environmental and human rights organizations are demanding that Montgomery County delay the vote until anthropologists and archeologists have conducted necessary research. The project has tapped, Dr. Michael Blakey, principal investigator for the New York African Burial Ground Project and Dr. Rachel Watkins, Professor of Anthropology, the American University to guide the project.

The history of the African River Road community is rich and extensive. A small community of Africans established Macedonia Baptist Church as the religious centerpiece of their community 55 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. The River Road African community encompassed entrepreneurs, teachers, skilled labor, farmers, hard-working parents and a rich religious community. This community, without help from the government, purchased land, built businesses, a school, churches, and cemeteries to bury and honor their dead in the River Road area. According to historic records, the River Road African community was decimated by developers which implemented political strategies that effectively transferred wealth based on land ownership from African families to white businesses. This transfer of wealth through a variety of unethical and racist strategies undermined and dispossessed the community leaving this community landless and unable to transfer wealth based on land ownership to future generations.

Mr. Harvey Matthews, a descendant of this community has stepped forward to provide leadership and share his knowledge of the history of the African community on River Road. In fact, Mr. Matthews home was once located in front of what is now, a Whole Foods strip mall in Bethesda. Sycamore trees and tulips, planted by Mr. Matthew’s parents that reappear every spring are still landmarks in front of the Whole Foods. Mr. Matthews stated at a recent demonstration that he “ was standing up for those relatives and neighbors who can no longer speak for themselves.” Ironically, the Whole Foods Market on River Road threatened to call the police on protesters paying homage to Mr. Mathews on “ their “ property. He has called upon young people to take up this battle because: “ Black Lives Matters not only in life but also in death.” Mr. Matthews is a Trustee of the Macedonia Baptist Church.

The Bethesda African Burial Ground struggle is one that should be supported by all progressive and human rights organizations. Please sign the petition below and review the links of the press coverage of this struggle:


News coverage of the struggle over Bethesda MD’s African Burial Groundl.:

Dr. Marsha Adebayo is the 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). She is Director of Transparency and Accountability for the Green Shadow Cabinet and serves on the Advisory Board of Marsha will be inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame, March 2017.