Militant Journalism

Maryland organizers fight developers and the state to preserve African cemetery

Photo: Gail Rebhan, used with permission.

The desecration of the Moses African Cemetery and other African burial grounds in Montgomery County, Maryland has been an ongoing crime for at least the past century. Six years ago, a struggle began on River Road in Montgomery County, Maryland against two agencies: the Maryland National Capital Parks and Planning Commission and the Housing Opportunities Commission. The agencies planned to sell the land of Moses African Cemetery, a site where hundreds of African and African American ancestors were laid to rest, to developers. This news spurred the social justice ministry of Macedonia Baptist Church, a church across the street from the cemetery, to create the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition. The Coalition is a multi-ethnic, multi-national, and multi-generational organization committed to protecting the ancestors from further desecration. 

For years, BACC has worked tirelessly to uncover the history of River Road and to educate the surrounding community through public education campaigns and events held at the cemetery. The Coalition published a book on the cemetery with a second book slated to be released later this year. They built a mobile exhibit to bring to different community events in the county, with a huge exhibit planned at American University’s Katzen Arts Center in June of this year. Through years of direct and legal action, they have succeeded at preventing the construction of a storage unit facility on the cemetery, blocked the cemetery from being sold to three different venture capitalists and captured evidence of grave looting, desecration and hate crimes that have occurred on the site. 

The Coalition plans to continue fighting until the land is returned to the church, ensuring that the graves are never disturbed again. They are also demanding that every single person responsible for the desecration be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law. 

According to Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, the president of the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition, “Desecration is a violent, political, cultural and spiritual act, perpetuated by those holding political and economic power committed to erasing the legacy, significance, history and ancestry of the oppressed in order to dominate and hold hegemonic power. The goal of desecration is to launder and plunder sacred land in order to transfer wealth from vulnerable groups to the landowning aristocracy.”

African drummers at a protest to save Moses Cemetery. Photo credit: Gail Rebhan.

The untold history of River Road

River Road, or Maryland Route 190, runs about 17 miles along the Potomac River in Maryland and Washington, D.C. The road runs mostly through rural and suburban areas in Montgomery County but ends in the urban area of Bethesda, Maryland. Like many of the counties adjacent to D.C., Montgomery County is one of the richest in the country. 

The history of the African community on River Road in Bethesda dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries when human traffickers first began kidnapping human beings from advanced civilizations in Western and Central Africa to be forced to labor on plantations of wealthy white landowners. Not only did European colonizers enslave and torture these Africans, but the landowners also learned a great deal about natural medicine, hydrology, agriculture and political organization by forcing those who were enslaved to pass on this knowledge. 

When tobacco crops wreaked havoc on the soil to the point where it became unusable, some plantation owners began to transition their business model to “breeding programs,” where they forced young girls to be raped and give birth to more human beings who could be sold, traded and forced to work. Many of these girls died during childbirth. If they didn’t die, they were sold to cotton plantations in the South and often were raped again along the journey.  Evidence of the forced birthings and mass graves on River Road comes from plantation records that show a disproportionate number of young girls — and their early deaths — in the area in the 1800s. 

Beginning in the 1850s, freed Africans were permitted to settle only in the area of River Road where the slave barracks and mass graves were located. After Emancipation, a “colored school” was established for the many African families who had settled in the area. Black families who owned land in the area donated some of their land to the school. In 1954, after the Brown v. Board of Education decision desegregated schools, the school was closed and the county gave the land to white families. 

The Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission, or MN-CPPC, has overseen much of the racist transfer of land from Black people in the state. The department was founded in 1927 with great encouragement from white supremacist politician and developer, Col. Edward Clark Lee, who was practiced in using racially restrictive covenants in his suburban development. 

By the mid-twentieth century, MN-CPPC began to develop the land where the River Road community resided using violent and racist tactics. They rezoned the area where Black families lived as industrial workers, enforcing industrial regulations to kick the families out of residential areas. They coerced homeowners with alcohol and told them they had to sell their homes for under the market value. If they didn’t, the homes would be condemned, and they would have to move anyway. The Ku Klux Klan began campaigns of terror in the area, riding through Black neighborhoods at night and setting fire to homes. One of the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition’s members, Harvey Matthews, recounts having to huddle with his family in darkness during the KKK’s “Black Out” nights. 

Photo by Gail Rebhan, used with permission.
Photo by Gail Rebhan, used with permission.

The struggle continues

Today, the only visible remnant of the African American community on River Road is the Macedonia Baptist Church. Below the soil are hundreds, possibly thousands, of graves interring the remains of Africans and African Americans. These ancestors have been denied a proper rest due to the continued desecration of the land in the 21st century. Furthermore, their descendants have been denied the right to steward the sacred resting place. 

BACC has built an uncompromising and organized movement for Black ancestors that has shaken up Montgomery County, one of the richest counties in the country, for the first time in recent history. In the summer of 2020, organizers from the Coalition blocked construction trucks outside of Moses three days a week to prevent any construction on the cemetery. Teams of photographers and videographers from the Coalition watched the cemetery for days on end to make sure that all disturbances by construction crews were documented. Images of construction workers carrying possible funerary bottles to the car are only one example in a series of egregious images the team captured. When huge trucks began carrying massive piles of the cemetery to an unmarked plot of land to what organizers describe as “the middle of nowhere,” the team followed the trucks and rummaged through the dirt until the ancestors were steamed over and crushed by machines. In just thirty minutes they found various hairpicks, funerary ceramics, and bone fragments. Despite presenting an abundance of evidence by BACC to local government leaders, both political parties in Montgomery County have turned their backs on the descendent community.

Organizers are putting pressure on Democrat and self-proclaimed “progressive” County Executive Marc Elrich, who, during his election, guaranteed the Coalition peace and the end of the racist desecration. However, as Elrich has himself admitted, he never had genuine plans to fight for Moses Cemetary to be returned to the descendent community. Instead, Elrich now claims there is nothing he can do about the desecration. Organizers are calling for Elrich to invoke eminent domain on the part of the cemetery owned by a private company. Regarding the portion of the cemetery owned by the Housing Opportunities Commission and Parks and Planning, organizers are calling for Elrich to strip funding from these Jim-Crow era departments until they return the cemetery to its rightful owners. 

The fight for Moses Cemetery is not a unique one. Cemetery organizations from across the country have reached out to the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition to show solidarity and highlight their own struggles to preserve and claim their sacred burial grounds. 

At the heart of this issue, BACC says, is land. Montgomery County, since its creation, has worked to ensure Black people don’t own land and therefore don’t have power. Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo says, “If you have land, you have wealth. In a capitalist system, wealth means power.”

Readers can find more information on the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition’s website.  

Photo credit: Gail Rebhan

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