Activists in Bethesda, Maryland are working to prevent the sale of an asphalt parking lot that was once a historic Black cemetery and preserve the bodies of several freed slaves and their descendants that may lie below.
NBC News reports the parking lot is part of an apartment complex that the county has agreed to sell to Charger Ventures, a property management firm, for $50 million. The Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition filed a suit against the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission last month because it failed to get court approval for the sale as required when cemetery property is involved, per NBC.
The sale was put on ice after a judge issued a temporary restraining order. A hearing will be held on the matter on Monday, according to NBC, and a judge will decide either to file an injunction that would block the sale until the lawsuit is settled or let the deal continue.
From NBC News:
“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,” said Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, president of the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition, which formed in 2019 and whose members are seeking to preserve what is known as the Moses African Cemetery.
Steven Lieberman, an attorney for the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition, told NBC that while it’s not known what would happen to the lot if the sale goes through, he doesn’t think that the developer is buying the property to “leave a parking lot in place” and believes that the site could be exploited.
In August, The Washington Post reported that an estimated 500 bodies rest at the Moses Cemetery, according to the lawsuit filed by the coalition.
Tax and burial records from the early 1900s prove that there was a cemetery at the site before it was paved over for the lot, along with a preliminary report from an archaeological contracting firm that confirmed the existence of a burial site on the parcel of land sold to Charger Ventures, per The Post.
Democratic County Executive Marc Elrich said in an interview with the newspaper that the county had previously held discussions with the coalition until the COVID-19 pandemic began. He claimed that the county offered to restart the conversations, but the coalition hadn’t taken them up on it.
Coleman-Adebayo, on the other hand, said Elrich hadn’t reached out to the coalition since the discussions were initially interrupted and that the coalition’s repeated attempts to restart them were met with silence, according to the Post.
The fight to save the Moses African Cemetery site comes as many other efforts to preserve the history of Black gravesites make national headlines. This includes the investigations by forensic researchers to properly bury victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and Florida signing a law that created a task force to find and preserve abandoned Black cemeteries throughout the state.
More from NBC:
“This cemetery is a metaphor for the larger narrative of land theft that happens to Black communities, Native communities, Latino communities and poor white communities,” he said.
While Barber said developers were able to profit in Bethesda from properties that once belonged to Black people, a full accounting must determine who benefited and what the cost of repayment to descendants would be.
“Developers literally built their wealth on top of other people’s graves,” Barber said. “Think about the ugliness of that.”