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MD Supreme Court hears lawsuit over Black cemetery under parking lot

The Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition (BACC) continues its fight to protect and receive justice for historical burial grounds.

Tower crane overlooking the flooded cemetery with the Westwood Towers apartment complex in the back. (Photo courtesy of Marsha Coleman-Adebayo/The BACC)

The Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition (BACC) issued an email last month to Montgomery County representatives to honor and support an investigation of an intentional flooding of Moses Macedonia African Cemetery. 

The BACC continues its Feb. 5 case at the Maryland Supreme Court and is calling for the Department of Justice, FBI and Montgomery County Police Department to conduct investigations of the historic African burial ground.

“Two courts have confirmed the existence of Moses Cemetery, but Montgomery County has never initiated actions to stop or condemn the desecration of kidnapped, murdered or raped Africans,” Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, president of the BACC, said in the statement

“The silence by the County has signaled that Moses African Cemetery is open season for grave looting, garbage dumping, white supremacist attacks and now intentional flooding,” Coleman-Adebayo said. 

The email came after the BACC raised concerns about trash, which included rolls of toilet paper, mattresses and old furniture dumped on top of the parcel of land now owned by Montgomery Parks. 

Ife Onasanya, a graduating senior psychology major and chemistry minor from North Carolina who currently works as a barista in Bethesda, said they were shocked upon hearing about the desecration of the cemetery and the recent attempt to sell the land. 

“I’m hearing it now for the first time, and I’m upset for those people who have families buried there and are being dismissed like they don’t matter,” Onasanya said. 

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Several laws have been passed to protect historic cemeteries like Moses Macedonia African Cemetery. Congress passed the African American Burial Grounds Preservation Act in December 2022. 

The act provides the National Park Service with a $3,000,000 annual grant program to fund national preservation efforts to discover, record, conserve and interpret important African American burial grounds and other historical sites. The BACC has declared that Congressman Jamie Raskin, who represents Maryland’s 8th congressional district, should support its call to action. 

“He [Raskin] can rant so eloquently about white supremacy when he was chair of the Jan. 6 committee in Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee, but when it is happening in his backyard, it’s crickets and total silence,” Coleman-Adebayo said. 

“Protecting historic cemeteries and burial sites of enslaved people is an important public priority,” Raskin said in a statement released following the email.

Congressman David Trone is on the ballot for U.S. Senator in Maryland this fall and is subject to losing Black voters after a controversial interaction with Adebayo at an event during Black History Month.

While discussing the memorialization of the Moses African Cemetery, Coleman-Adebayo said that she was dismissed by Trone after she handed him a leaflet, to which he responded, “Who cares about that little cemetery?” The comment has led to over 400 people signing a petition in protest. 

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Camille Ross is a graduating senior and history major from Philadelphia. Ross said that Trone’s comments indicate he is not using his elected power to serve his constituents. 

“You don’t violate the dead,” Ross said. “If you’re willing to violate that basic ethical code, I don’t believe you should be in power because that shows that you’re morally bankrupt.”

Ross sees this dispute as interconnected to a broader struggle. 

“If you consider that the foundation of this country is on the mass graves of Native Americans and enslaved Africans, this is not a deviation from that foundation,” Ross said.

The flooded parking lot where the Moses Macedonia African Cemetery used to be. (Photo courtesy of Marsha Coleman-Adebayo/The BACC)

The BACC believes the flooding of Moses Cemetery was intentional and retaliation for its nearly decade-long activism, as well as the increasing attention the desecration has received following the Supreme Court case heard earlier this year. 

In the mid-1960s, the developers of the Westwood Towers demolished the gravestones in the cemetery. The area was then paved and used as a parking lot for the next 50 years. According to the Washington Post, an estimated 500 bodies of people of African descent are buried in Moses Cemetery.

The Macedonia Baptist Church and other coalition members have been pushing for the memorialization of the cemetery for years after discovering that the burial site was likely still intact beneath the concrete during a 2017 archeological survey of the property.

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According to the September 2023 Circuit Court hearing, the Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC) argued that there were no longer any human remains buried beneath the parking lot. 

Marked map of parcels in the area. (Photo courtesy of the BACC)

In 2021, citing the possibility that “many bodies still remain on the property,” Judge Karla Smith temporarily blocked the sale until the land’s legal disputes had been settled. The HOC filed an appeal with the Appellate Court of Maryland, the second-highest court in the state. 

The court ruled that the HOC could proceed with the land sale, a decision that was strongly opposed and appealed by the BACC. The court ruled that descendants of those interred on the site may be able to file a suit against future property owners.

Steve Lieberman, an attorney for the coalition, called the decision “one of the most shockingly insensitive and off-base rulings” he’s ever seen in an interview with the Washington Post. 

The seven justices of the Maryland Supreme Court did not reach a decision. They will issue a ruling in the coming months, setting a precedent for preserving historic burial sites. 

The BACC views the Moses Cemetery struggle not in isolation; rather, it sees it as connected to all the different aspects of Black oppression. 

“Their position is that these people were trash when they were living, and now they’re trash when they’re dead,” Coleman-Adebayo said. “It’s a complete circle of disrespect of Black people.”

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Construction of the proposed Bethesda self-storage facility in February. (Photo courtesy of Marsha Coleman-Adebayo/The BACC)

Copy edited by Jalyn Lovelady

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