A Community Fights The County To Show Black Ancestor’s Lives Matter
Above photo: Harvey Matthews addresses the crowd as they stand on the parking lot that covers the Moses African Cemetery in Bethesda, Maryland. From the Bethesda African Cemetery Website.
Clearing the FOG co-hosts Margaret Flowers and Kevin Zeese interviewed Dr. Marsha Coleman Adebayo of the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition about the struggle in her community to reclaim an African cemetery currently buried under a parking lot. Since discovering the cemetery, residents of Bethesda have uncovered the brutal treatment of Africans who lived there starting with being worked to death on a tobacco plantation that later turned to forced sexual exploitation and breeding for profit. Once they were freed, African residents set up a thriving community that was then taken over through gentrification. It is an amazing story of fortitude for those who lived through it and for the community that is now fighting the county to honor the memory of what happened. Listen to the full interview plus current news and analysis on Clearing the FOG.
Clearing the FOG (CtF): Can you tell us how this campaign began?
Marsha Coleman Adebayo (MCA): It started about three years ago. I had just become director of the social justice ministries at my church, which is the Macedonia Baptist Church. It’s the only remaining black church in Bethesda, Maryland. There used to be dozens of black churches, but through gentrification and criminal activity on the part of the county government and businesses, they were all wiped away. Only one church remained and that’s Macedonia Baptist Church.
I was asked to go to a meeting at the Montgomery Planning Board and I didn’t really know what I was walking into to be very honest with you. They started talking about a new sector plan that they were going to redevelop this area in Bethesda. And then the director Gwen Wright made the comment that there’s a faint rumor that there could be an old African American cemetery somewhere in the area. She said don’t worry about it because we’ve got historians here and all kinds of folks and they’ll look into it. So we don’t need for you people, meaning the community, to concern your little heads about it because we’ll take care of it.
There was a man sitting to my left. His name is Harvey Matthews. He raised his hand and she called on him and he said this is not some faint notion that there could be a black cemetery. I used to play in that cemetery when I was a child. And at that point, it was the most amazing experience because as a social scientist you learn about oral history and about how important oral history is, but I had never seen oral history used as a tool like that before in a meeting. All these scientists and archaeologists sitting around the table just had to drop their pens in the face of that kind of truth. They really didn’t know how to respond to that except asking are you sure and he said I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life. I used to play in that area because Bethesda was segregated and we didn’t have a lot of places where black kids can play and so we played among the tombstones in the cemetery.
At that point, everything changed. The corporation, which was at that point Equity One, the guy became really flushed because they spent tens of millions of dollars in this area. You had the county government that also invested all this time and effort and money into this area and now it was all crumbling right before their faces. They called an adjournment to the meeting and said we’ll meet in a couple of weeks. But then I started getting a flurry of phone calls saying maybe he doesn’t quite remember. I mean they basically just tried to cover up and hide and lie their way out of this process. That’s when we realized okay we had really touched a third rail here.
CtF: Let’s go back a little further and talk about the River Road African Community that existed in Bethesda before it started really getting built up with these high-rises and things in the 1950s.
MCA: Why don’t we go back further? That’s the problem with the African American narrative or African American history. Our history does not start in the United States. Our history starts in West and Central Africa. And so whenever we’re cornered into these little teeny holes of talking about our history starting in the United States, you sort of wiped out the three or four thousand years or even longer history before we got to River Road.
Let’s start with the fact that the people who eventually come to River Road start in the African kingdoms of Kanem Bornu and the Ghana Kingdom and the Ashanti Kingdom and the Yoruba Kingdom. These were very advanced civilizations of higher learning where the Greeks were coming to West Africa to learn mathematics. Let’s talk about the University of Sankara, which eventually became the University of Timbuktu where they were performing cataract surgery. Let’s talk about the building blocks of agriculture and how to redesign waterways. All of these activities and these skills and these institutions of higher learning are the reason why Europeans went to West and Central Africa and decided to kidnap all of these people and to transfer all that knowledge.
What Europeans eventually called the transatlantic slave trade was, in fact, the largest transfer of intellectual knowledge that the world has ever seen. Basically the Europeans transferred all this agricultural and technological and science from West and Central Africa to the United States. It lands in Jamestown 400 years ago, but, of course, the Spanish had already colonized Florida by that time. They had already started kidnapping Africans and bringing them to that part of the country long before Jamestown.
Jamestown is particularly relevant to the River Road Community because it was in Jamestown where they were able to refine a variety of tobacco that was appealing to the European palette. And 30 or 40 years after they had refined this variety of tobacco, we now get the first colonization of River Road. Of course, that simultaneously wiped out Native American communities along River Road. Basically they stole that land, committing genocide on the people, and then you begin to get all of these what Europeans call plantations.
From a bottom-up perspective, the least important activity in that space was what they were planting. The Africans were being brought from Africa to be worked to death. They worked from the first glimmer of light in the morning until they couldn’t see anymore and they were literally worked to death. This is the reason why we no longer call these places plantations We now call them what they actually were, which is death camps. These were death camps for the Africans.
So we are now looking at about 1670 when the first Africans arrived on River Road and we’ve been really homing in on one particular death camp. That’s the death camp owned by the Councilman brothers. This particular death camp is particularly important to this community because it is actually where Macedonia Baptist Church still sits. Our church is located in what European historians call the slave quarters. We are going to celebrate our quote-unquote 100th year of corporate ownership of that land. But in fact, Africans began to raise their hands begging God to deliver them from the torture that they were undergoing around maybe 1670. So that was the beginning of the community on River Road.
CtF: So much history is erased.
MCA: So much history is erased and you wonder in whose interest. We’ve had to literally start from scratch because Montgomery County has been so actively trying to erase this incredible history that school children in Montgomery County should know like they know the Gettysburg Address. Instead of embracing this history, understanding so that we can learn from this history, Montgomery County has actively been trying to cover it up, to deny it, to erase it and that’s just not going to happen, not as long as the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition is around. We are as much historians as we are activists at this point.
CtF: You’ve done incredible work. For Truth and Reconciliation, you can’t have reconciliation without truth.
MCA: You can’t have reconciliation without justice. The reason why they’re so concerned about this is because they’re concerned about the issue of reparations. As you said, you had a community of Africans who had somehow someway survived the torture of European barbarism that they euphemistically like to call slavery. It certainly was not any form of slavery we’ve ever seen that we can really sort of pin that term on what happened to Africans in this country. This is more barbarism than it was slavery.
So you have this barbarism that’s going on. People are literally being murdered and raped. You have this community that grows out of this barbarism. One of the things that we also found out was that as you know around 1807, there’s a blockade of bringing Africans from the continent into the United States because quite frankly it was competing with the internal market of breeding Africans in this country. Europeans like to say, “We had some paying of conscience and we decided to end the slave trade.” That’s just complete and total nonsense. The reason why they ended bringing Africans into the United States was that it was interfering with their competition. People were already beginning to breed African women and so bringing in new Africans was literally in competition with the breeding industry that they had started in this country.
River Road was no different than that. Around 1807, the land begins to be exhausted because tobacco is really hard on the soil. The land on River Road was just not yielding the same amount of tobacco. The soil was depleted. The question for the Councilman brothers as well as these other terrorists that were kidnapping Africans is how are we going to compete with the rice growers and the sugar growers in the South? What industry can we invest our money in that will compete with these other businesses? And they also decide to go into breeding young African girls.
From about 1807 until after 1864, which is when Maryland becomes independent, they turn the Councilman death camp into what we really hate to call it, but it was a targeted sexual assault area. African girls were being bought at around 8 years old and then were what they call primed, which means they were basically on the pedophile market until their menses started. Then they were basically handed over to professional breeders. They had men who were professional breeders and they were literally starting to rape these little girls.
The same thing happened with Thomas Jefferson. Of course, that’s the Thomas Jefferson story that we don’t want to talk about, that he was a pedophile and that he was actually engaged in this activity. So it was happening in Monticello and it was also happening right here on River Road.
These were very sophisticated sexual breeding areas where they had a doctor who went from one place to another. They had nurses. They had midwives. They had the birthing areas. They had the raping areas. The thought was that one African girl could exponentially produce about 75 people. If she had 10 children in her lifetime and half are girls, then you could begin to breed those girls. You could start using them in the pedophile market as early as whenever but then later they would also be brought over to the breeding market at around 10 or 12 years old. And the same thing with black boys. We don’t talk about how black boys were also used in the pedophile market as well as later in life.
When I say this community survived somehow all of this torture, that’s what I’m talking about. After 1864, we get Africans leaving these death camps and beginning to build their homes. They’re trying to build some normalcy in the context of all the trauma on River Road. And what’s interesting is that three years after emancipation, so called emancipation, this one woman, I think her name was Mary Rivers actually goes and buys the land that we now call Moses African Cemetery. Why did she buy that land? She buys that land because she knows that her relatives are in that land. Instead of using the money for food or clothing, she actually buys the land. She becomes a member of what eventually becomes Macedonia Baptist Church and she’s funeralized in Macedonia Baptist Church, and then her body is actually taken and buried in Moses African Cemetery.
The church’s roots go back so far with that land. After she purchased that land, a black benevolent society buys that land but names it Moses African Cemetery for the Sons and Daughters of Moses. And then, they’re eventually run off of the land and white developers basically steal the land from the black benevolent society. And that is how we get to where we’re at today.
CtF: So this is all history that you’ve learned through the course from that first meeting at the Planning Commission until now. Can you talk about how you’ve been able to uncover this information?
MCA: We are blessed with the most amazing historians and archivists, people like Amy Riskin and Dr. Tim Willard and so many other people who have stepped forward. They’re so passionate about finding this history and they just have massive tools in which to do so. We’ve been just incredibly blessed to work with all these people from our community who come forward to say I have a little piece of this history and can we stitch that together with what you know. And so we’ve been able to basically build a quilt now of the stitching together of what historians and archivists like Dr. Willard had been able to find.
It was Dr. Willard Tim Willard, the co-chair of the Montgomery County Green Party, who actually found the 1862 or 1863 US Census, what they call the slave schedule for the US Census, and that was how we were able to put together that we were looking at breeding camps. When you looked at the census report, it was all made up of young African girls and some African boys, and maybe two or three African adults. So we knew that was not a typical tobacco plantation because tobacco is really hard to grow. It takes a lot of skill and work, so you’re not looking at seven or eight-year-old girls doing that kind of work. So we were able to begin to stitch together the story from looking at those kinds of documents.
CtF: What an amazing development and story in one of the wealthiest counties in the country. This should really be something that a museum displays.
MCA: Exactly, and that’s what we’re fighting for. We’re fighting to bring a project to Bethesda that’s going to make Bethesda richer. It’s just incredible to think that we can build a first-class museum and first-class memorial to these little girls and boys who lived on River Road and built such a rich and powerful culture. Remember three years after emancipation, 70% of the Africans on River Road owned land. That’s unbelievable when you think about how long it takes those of us in the 21st century to buy our first house. Three years after the emancipation, these Africans were owning land on River Road.
They had started all kinds of businesses, everything from midwifery to churches to their own banking system, their co-op system, to farming lands and selling the skins and the meat from animals. There was a very rich and prosperous community that was tucked away, but they supported each other and they loved each other. They had their outside relationships with white folks, but basically they huddled together to protect each other and support each other.
That community existed until 1962 when the county, in collusion with businesses, decided that Africans no longer were welcomed on River Road. One by one, they stole each house on River Road. They wiped out the black community here. One hundred percent of every black home was taken away.
If you’re in Bethesda and you go to the Whole Foods Market on River Road, that was the home of Harvey Matthews’ family. That land was sold in order to build this shopping center for around 70 million dollars about 10 years ago. That’s the kind of intergenerational wealth that black people do not enjoy in this country because if Harvey Matthews’ family had been able to hold onto that land, they would be millionaires now. Instead, Harvey Matthews is struggling and his family is struggling while that land is now owned by Amazon.
CtF: Can you describe what happened to the Bethesda African Cemetery, what it looks like right now?
MCA: We had a king who visited us from Benin, Porto Novo, and when we got to the area I said to him we were looking at a parking lot because as they were building the HOC [Housing Opportunities Commission] building in the 1960s, they were building the basement and they came in contact with all of these remains. They decided to push all these remains into a mass grave. Then when the remains kept popping up during the rainy season because it’s a downhill area, they decided to lock in the grave by pouring over the graves and making it into a parking lot.
First, they filled in the graves by putting 30 feet of fill dirt on top of the remains. Then they basically put asphalt top on top of the grave. So right now if you go there, what you’re going to see is a parking lot. That’s where our ancestors are located under a parking lot.
When we hosted a king from Benin from the kingdom of Porto Novo a couple of months ago, he became so overwhelmed knowing that his sisters and brothers and relatives were underneath this parking lot. And I said to everyone there that this is what contempt looks like. This is what contempt looks like.
CtF: Can you describe what has been the reaction of the public in that area and how has Montgomery County responded now that you’ve uncovered all of this information?
MCA: Two separate reactions altogether. The public has been absolutely fabulous. You were at the first demonstration where we marched from Macedonia over to the cemetery. We were in infancy in terms of our knowledge of what was underneath the parking lot at that point, but as you could see the community came out to support us.
Everybody knows about the cemetery now because I think we’ve done a very effective public education program. So the public has been fabulous. And of course, no one supports desecration. It would be very difficult for people to actually say they support the desecration of graves. So we don’t have a lot of people in the public saying we think the grave should continue to be desecrated.
On the other hand, the government has been just the exact opposite. The HOC said they’re perfectly happy with the status quo being in place. They have no plan or aims to develop the land. They have no plans to do anything. They just want the parking lot to stay as it is and they want people to continue to desecrate. That’s been their position.
We’ve called for the executive director of HOC to be fired, but we can’t figure out who would fire him. The rules of engagement in the county are that they have all these very weird accountability rules where nobody can quite figure out what is the chain of command here. That’s because he really is beholden to the developer industrial complex. And that’s the reason why it’s so fuzzy in terms of how to get rid of him because the county has developed these kinds of very weird reporting rules.
The county itself fought us tooth and nail for at least the first two years. They were the ones who called the cemetery an alleged cemetery until we went through the Maryland Public Information Act and we actually found the documents where the county was actually holding meetings as early as 2015 to figure out what would happen if someone found out about this cemetery and how would they continue to sell this land if this if anyone ever found out about the cemetery. So the county has been engaged in a protracted cover-up for a very long time to try to keep this information from the public and make sure that they could work with developers to develop this land.
So what the social justice movement did because this is the most important part of what I’m going to say is that when people organize, it changes everything. It changes the dialogue. It changes the power structure. It changes who people talk to. It changes the entire dynamic of what happens in a political situation and that’s what happened in Bethesda, Maryland. We began to organize with all kinds of organizations from the Green Party to local black Baptist churches to local businesses to schools. And people began to understand how powerful they are. That’s very important.
Of course, what happened at that point is that the system reacts always in a very brutal and retaliatory way. I think people began to understand that our social justice movement was not just about Moses African Cemetery, it was about confronting white supremacy and all of its various tentacles throughout the county. And it was also about confronting the structure of white supremacy. And so this social movement has been important because it has really called into question the very core of how Montgomery County government works. That is why we are such a threat to Montgomery County right now.
CtF: If people want to get involved they should go to Bethesda African Cemetery dot-org because you need support. You need people to know this is still an ongoing campaign. This has not been won. It’s not just this one cemetery in Montgomery County. This is a history for the whole country.
MCA: It’s one of the reasons why we filed papers yesterday with the state attorney’s office, McCarthy, asking him now to file charges against the HOC on the basis of hate crimes. These are hate crimes and the only way you cannot see what’s happening with the Bethesda African Cemetery is if you don’t see those people underneath the cemetery as human. These are hate crimes.
So we’re now asking Montgomery County to step up to the plate and acknowledge finally that Africans are human and that what happened on River Road were crimes against humanity and to also start filing hate crime charges against all these corporations that are defiling the bodies and the memories because we’re fighting for memory here. We’re fighting for memory. Whose memory is important? Is it our memory or corporate memory?
CtF: Black cemeteries across the South are threatened like this. Places where black people were sold in the United States are also being threatened with development. This is a history that we cannot hide. We need to bring it out in the open and understand it so we can come to terms with it. The restitution issue you mentioned plays right into that.
MCA: The HOC is just a facade for developers to say that they’re engaged in building low-income housing when in fact the majority of the housing that is really being built under this HOC is really for market-rate residents in Montgomery County. The average income in Montgomery County is a little bit less than $200,000 a year. This is by no means low income housing that they’re engaged in. This is market-based housing and they’re using the veneer of low-income housing to do their dirty work.
CtF: Can you quickly comment on other similar efforts that are going on around the United States? There have been actually some victories in other places, right?
MCA: In Chattanooga, Tennessee. Their own HOC found out that there were remains under a building that they actually had residents in. They have three buildings and they built a new complex and relocated three buildings of residents to a new place in order to preserve and protect the sacredness of this African burial ground. This is Chattanooga, Tennessee. When you think of Montgomery County and Chattanooga, you don’t think of Chattanooga as being more progressive than Montgomery County.
We have examples in Florida where corporations have found out that there were African burial grounds and have stepped forward to do the right thing. But in Montgomery County, we’re still fighting the Civil War here.
We have not won this battle. We’ve won a lot of victories. We forced two multinational billion-dollar corporations to stand down and sort of back off but we have by no means won this battle. We’re still fighting Montgomery County and we’re still fighting the HOC. That land is still in the hands of enemies, the HOC and the county basically. So we need everyone, we need all hands on deck and we need money. We need people who can march. We need people who can sing. There are all kinds of skills that have been brought into this social justice movement and we need every single skill out there right now. So we need the public to step forward.
CtF: The movement has gotten bigger and stronger but it still has not defeated the developers that dominate Montgomery County.
MCA: They’re very powerful here. Every inch of land in Montgomery County, and Bethesda in particular, is fought for. And this is really flying in the face of the concept of private property versus sacred property. So we’re having some really big discussions here in Montgomery County that go to the root of the beginning of American capitalism. And that’s what I mean by saying everybody brings something to this table. We have a cultural group that comes and they sing with us at every demonstration. They sing protest songs and songs of resistance. We have archivists. We have historians. We have people who are organizers. We have attorneys. Everyone has something to share, has something to provide to this movement because we are basically trying to break the spine of white supremacy. And so we need everyone to help us. This is a big job.
We’re going to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Macedonia Baptist Church on March 7th from six to ten o’clock, and we’d like to invite everyone to please come out and join the celebration. We’re going to sing and we’re going to have a great time just celebrating the community on River Road.