Black History 365: Slavery descendants fight to memorialize a cemetery in Maryland

As a kid Harvey Matthews cut through the Moses Macedonia African Cemetery on River Road in Bethesda, Md., on his way to school, and remembers playing hide-and-seek there.

“I know Moses. I lived across the street from it. Where did the bodies go?” asks Matthews.

Originally, the cemetery was called White’s Tabernacle 39. Developers bulldozed it in the late 1950’s to give way to a high-rise tower and a parking lot. It’s owned by Montgomery County’s Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC), the county’s housing agency.

In the 1700’s there were several plantations along River Road, and after emancipation, a community of Black people flourished for almost a century – they built homes, a school, ballfields, a church and a cemetery.

“It was a prosperous, vibrant community,” says Matthews, describing the Black enclave where he was born in 1944.

Matthews gets emotional talking about the past.

“It bothers me to think about what happened to the River Road community,” he says. “It’s the lost colony.” An upscale supermarket is now where Matthews’ family home once stood.

Today, the Black cemetery is the center of a legal fight between the descendant community of River Road and the HOC. Local officials want to sell the property to a commercial developer. Descendants want to memorialize the site.

Battlegrounds of memories

It has largely fallen to descendants and volunteers to fight to preserve historically Black burial sites, such as the Durham Geer Cemetery in North Carolina, the East End Cemetery in Virginia, and the United American Cemetery in Ohio.

But in some cities, historically Black cemeteries are being re-discovered and protected.

In Portsmouth, N.H., city workers discovered an 18th-century Black burial site in a downtown street when working on a sewer line in 2003. The city built the Portsmouth African Burying Ground to honor those interred there.

In the 1950’s, according to the Little Falls Watershed Alliance, commercial developers got their eyes on the River Road corridor. Harvey Matthews says his family couldn’t afford to keep its land and was forced to move to the District of Columbia when he was 11. His community was “stolen and erased,” he says.

The last standing remnant of the once-thriving post-Civil War community on River Road is the tiny Macedonia Baptist Church wedged between a towering apartment building and a Bank of America branch.

In 2019, after years of trying to dialogue with the county to memorialize the cemetery, the descendant community of the church, led by minister Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, founded the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition.

And last fall the Coalition filed a lawsuit in the county’s circuit court against the HOC when it tried to sell the property to a developer for $51 million dollars. About 500 bodies of enslaved people and their relatives are interred at the cemetery, the lawsuit states. Harvey Matthews is one of the plaintiffs.

“They refused to talk to us, to negotiate in good faith,” Coleman-Adebayo says. This year she and others wrote The Bridge that Carried Us Over, the history of the Black community of River Road.

Arguing for equity

“We want to reclaim our history,” Coleman-Adebayo says.

Maryland has statutes that go back to the 19th century that protect the sanctity of cemeteries, and the court alone decides if a property where a burial ground sits can be sold and under what conditions.

In her written opinion, Judge Karla Smith ruled that the HOC did not get permission from the court before selling the property as required by state law.

In 2017, the Montgomery County Planning Department approved a historical investigation and cemetery assessment of the land along River Road. It was conducted by the Ottery Group, an archeological consulting firm.

It concluded that a Black cemetery is buried under the property’s parking lot, that there’s no evidence the cemetery was formally moved. It recommended the HOC develop a mitigation plan to stop any construction, or if construction moves forward, the agency must have protocols in place to safely remove human remains.

Lyle Torp is the Ottery Group’s managing director. Torp says that development and gentrification have forced many historically Black communities around the country, like the community along River Road, to uproot and disperse.

After their buildings are bulldozed, Torp says, “and their histories and heritage erased, cemeteries are the only tangible evidence that their communities existed.”

Attorney Steve Lieberman is an expert on cemetery desecration and he represents the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition pro bono.

“We are still not treating people equally,” says Lieberman. “The people who are buried at Moses are not of equal dignity.”

Lieberman says that during court proceedings, “the HOC’s maintained a respectful distance from the truth.”

According to the court hearing transcript last September, the HOC argued the land at issue no longer contains human remains. “It’s an assumption,” Frederick Douglas, who’s one of the attorneys representing the agency argued. “We can’t look at that parking lot and say, here lies the remains.”

A spokesperson for the HOC declined NPR’s request for an interview, citing the ongoing legal case. Gov. Larry Hogan’s office and county council members did not respond to NPR’s request for interviews.

Marc Elrich, Montgomery County executive, says he supports memorializing the site, but he’s certain HOC “will not give up the property.”

“I can’t force the HOC to give up the property,” he says.

It’s important to memorialize historically Black cemeteries, Lieberman says, because for Americans to understand the full historical scope of Montgomery County, including its shameful history of slavery and the slave trade, there need to be markers.

“People need to understand what took place before the Civil War, what took place before and after emancipation in the county,” Lieberman says.

It’s hard to know the extent of the problem

There is no national database for African American cemeteries. Currently there is pending legislation in the U.S. Congress. The African American Burial Grounds Preservation Act, if passed, would create the first program at the National Park Service that would identify, preserve and restore African American burial grounds.

“It could be in the thousands,” Alan Spears says, referring to Black burial sites in the country. He’s director for cultural resources at the National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit that supports the legislation. It was created in 1919 to advocate for the National Parks System.

“It is about restorative justice,” Spears says.

“The country has conveniently been too comfortable in associating racism to the South,” says Spears. “We’ve got to come to grips with that legacy in the north and in the East and in the West.”

Slavery too is mostly associated with the South, but the oldest and largest Black cemetery where mostly enslaved Africans are buried was discovered in New York City in 1991. Today, the African Burial Ground National Monument sits in that location.

Michael Blakey is a professor of anthropology, Africana studies and American studies at the College of William & Mary. He was also principal investigator for the research and analysis of the African Burial Ground National Monument, and he advocates on behalf of the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition in Maryland.

Resistance to honor these burial grounds include financial interests, says Blakey.

“White supremacy is not only intentional use of violence and strong words,” Blakey notes.

“Montgomery county is dismissing the humanity of that descendant community,” Blakey says. “And that is wrong.”

Segregated in life and segregated in death

“It’s all about money,” says Geneva Nanette Hunter, 62. Some of her ancestors are interred at Moses on River Road, including her great-great grandaunt Cora Botts and her husband, Jeremiah, as well as others. Hunter is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Growing up, her parents didn’t speak about their ancestors and slavery.

“It was shameful,” Hunter says. The Columbia, Md., resident says she only learned that some of her relatives were part of the River Road community a few years ago.

“It’s a lot to carry,” Hunter says. “They were openly disrespected in their daily lives, and now in death.”

She’s become more curious about her ancestors’ genealogy and lifestyles.

“I’m trying to be a soldier for the battles,” she says, her eyes getting moist.

She says the lawsuit has taken a toll on her, but “I owe it to Cora and Jerry and the Clippers, the Parkers, and all the people that are buried there,” she says.

Her hope, she adds, is that the site of the Moses Macedonia African Cemetery is turned into a memorial, “a place of reflection and meditation.”

The county is appealing Judge Smith’s decision. The next court date is set for Oct. 6th.