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

The conflict in Montgomery County is over what can't be seen: potentially hundreds of bodies of freed slaves and their descendants buried in an unmarked cemetery.

9/24/2021 6:36:00 PM

Historic Black cemetery buried below parking lot at the center of a legal dispute. '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.'

The conflict in Montgomery County is over what can't be seen: potentially hundreds of bodies of freed slaves and their descendants buried in an unmarked cemetery.

01:49The sites are endangered for a variety of reasons, she said — development, a lack of historical record-keeping, no political willpower to save them oreven 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."

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'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. headtopics.com

Gail RebhanBethesda'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 ahistorical 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. headtopics.com

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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 RebhanThe 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."Archaeologists and community groups throughout the country are undertaking similar preservation efforts. headtopics.com

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