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Hundreds turn out Juneteenth to stop desecration of Maryland cemetery

BETHESDA, Md.—Residents here used the occasion of Juneteenth celebrations, for the first time an official national holiday, to step up an ongoing struggle to stop the desecration of an African cemetery.

The Moses Cemetery is a place where freed Africans are buried, part of a tightly-knit Black enclave formed in the wake of the abolition of slavery in Maryland.

A coalition of activists had to be formed to save the cemetery after the arrival in 2017 of a company determined to build a self-storage facility on the site.

Several hundred members and supporters of the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition (BACC), Macedonia Baptist Church, Claudia Jones School for Political Education, and speakers from local anti-racist organizations celebrated Juneteenth at the Moses African Cemetery on Saturday. The coalition, led by Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, seeks to stop the desecration of the Cemetery and memorialize the freed Africans buried there.

In 2017, the Montgomery County Planning Board gave self-storage developer 1784 Capital Holdings permission to build a facility on land legally designated “Parcels 242 and 191,” less than 100 yards from the historic cemetery. In July 2017, researchers from the Ottery Group investigated local “death notices and funeral announcements” from the early 20th century and found documentation that Moses Cemetery “received new internments” between 1911 and 1944.

However, developers damaged the cemetery while paving a parking lot during the construction of the 15-story Westbard Tower Apartments, which are adjacent to the burial ground. “Quiet disposal of remains was illegal but not unusual in the 1960s,” wrote Bill Turque at the Washington Post, “especially in places where countryside became suburb and suburb became city.”

According to the researchers, in the 1960s Maryland experienced a “continuation of racial relations and attitudes from the pre-civil rights era. African Americans were systematically treated as second-class citizens, without access to due process, subjected to race-hatred and terror, deprived of equal civil and human rights, including the right to a lasting burial. This cultural setting raises the possibility of unrecorded, illicit tampering with Moses Cemetery during mid-century construction and development, a possibility that elevates the importance of oral history and local knowledge of these events.”

Coalition leaders have sent hundreds of letters to Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich over the last four years, demanding that he cease the development of the site so archaeologists can determine whether human bones are there. The coalition has also met with Elrich several times over the last two years seeking compromise on a way to honor and commemorate the historic Black cemetery.

In October 2020, coalition attorneys sent a letter to Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy, requesting a criminal investigation of 1784 Capital Holdings. The attorneys alleged the firm “illegally allowed the destruction of a tombstone” at the construction site. McCarthy, who had reviewed the site with archaeologists, found the development to be “in compliance with the planning board directives for excavation” and that it “does not justify a criminal proceeding.” Attorney Steve Lieberman represents the coalition; he and an increasing number of BACC supporters have called for Montgomery County Officials to put a moratorium on the development for a “comprehensive archaeological study of the parcel.”

They’ve also demanded that developers allow biological anthropologist Dr. Michael Blakey “full access to the construction site to monitor the digging for signs of burials.” According to Blakey, photos of the construction site showed “fragments of light-colored elongated material consistent with skeletal material, but is not currently verifiable as such.” Developers argued “there is no evidence the cemetery ever extended beyond parcels 175 and 177 and onto their new plot” and have denied Blakey “24/7 access” and questioned his credentials, saying “they have already employed a team of archaeologists to be on-site at all times.”

The BACC is keeping up the struggle and maintains steady protest of the development each Wednesday at 5:00 pm at the cemetery.

June 22, 2021 12:45 PM CDT

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