How An African Cemetery Under A Parking Lot Galvanized A Community To Fight White Supremacy
The United States still has a long way to go to come to terms with its history of being founded on genocide and slavery. In recent years, we have heard about efforts to take down monuments to those who perpetrated these crimes. What we rarely hear are the stories of how that genocide and slavery have been covered up and how even today there are barriers to those who seek to expose them. One such effort is taking place right now in one of the wealthiest counties in the United States. Dr. Marsha Coleman Adebayo tells us the riveting story of her discovery of an African Cemetery under a parking lot. She has led a community effort to stop a building from being erected on the site, which has unearthed a horrific past experienced by former residents of that land and has become a struggle against gentrification and white supremacy.
Dr. Marsha Coleman Adebayo received her BA degree from Barnard College/Columbia University and her doctorate degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Dr. Coleman-Adebayo was a Senior Policy Analyst in the Office of the Administrator at the US Environmental Protection Agency. She has held various academic positions as Adjunct Professor at the Georgetown University – School of Foreign Studies and Visiting Scholar in the Department of African-American Studies at George Mason University.
On August 18, 2000, Dr. Coleman-Adebayo won an historic lawsuit against the EPA on the basis of race, sex, color discrimination, and a hostile work environment. She subsequently testified before Congress on two occa sions. As a result, the Notification of Federal Employees Anti-discrimination and Retaliation Act [No FEAR] was introduced by Congressman F. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee ( D-TX) and Senator John Warner (R- VA). Along with the No FEAR Coalition, she ushered the No FEAR Bill through Congress. President George W. Bush signed the No FEAR Act into law. Thousands of federal workers and their families have directly benefited from this law. Read her full bio here.
Margaret Flowers (MF): You’re listening to Clearing the FOG, speaking truth to expose the forces of greed with Margaret Flowers.
Kevin Zeese (KZ): and Kevin Zeese.
MF: And Clearing the FOG is a project of Popular Resistance dot-org. You can subscribe to us on iTunes, SoundCloud, Mixcloud, Stitcher and Google Play. You can also find us at Popular Resistance dot-org and while you’re there check out our store where you’ll find Clearing the FOG gear like bumper stickers, t-shirts, water bottles and tote bags. So this week we interviewed. Dr. Marsha Coleman Adebayo of the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition.
KZ: We’ve worked with Marsha for years. She’s also an EPA whistleblower. She exposed mining pollution in South Africa during the Clinton Gore era and she’s been an activist ever since on whistleblower issues. Now this is a project dealing with an African American cemetery in Montgomery County that was paved over for developers and they’ve been fighting to correct that and memorialize the African town that was there.
MF: Yes, and this has opened the door, this campaign, to learning so much about what actually went on in Bethesda. It’s a really interesting story, what they’ve learned so far and why this is a crucial area that needs to be memorialized and they’re looking to put a museum there to educate people about what actually happened.
KZ: This is an amazing story. I hope people stick around to listen to this interview. I think you’ll be really astonished by what they learned and sadly this is very common throughout the southern part of the United States, the Confederacy.
MF: So we just got back from our speaking tour in Florida for our efforts to protect the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington DC last spring. A great job that the organizers did down there organizing speaking events for us and helping us to raise money for our legal defense fund.
KZ: And that’s part of the beginning of an East Coast tour. We’ll be going to New Jersey, Pennsylvania to Philadelphia, to New York City to Connecticut. And then to Massachusetts. So check out and see what our schedule is so you can join and participate.
MF: And that website is Defend Embassy Protectors dot o– r– g. First I just want to quickly comment on the recent decision in Florida that’s going to impact formerly incarcerated and take away their voting rights.
KZ: Well, this is the result of a really massive public support for people who’ve been convicted of felonies getting their voting rights back and really overwhelming support. Unfortunately, the Republican-controlled government down there and the court down there are trying to really make that impossible to implement or difficult to implement.
MF: One of the things that they’re saying is that they can’t vote if they have any outstanding fees or fines.
KZ: Exactly and the court upheld that. The ACLU is describing it as a poll tax. Of course, the Florida Supreme Court doesn’t use that language. But essentially you got to pay these fees if you’re going to get your voting rights back. So it’s the equivalent of a poll tax which has been illegal for a long time thanks to US Supreme Court decisions. But this Florida Supreme Court decision upholds this legislative and gubernatorial action to make it difficult to implement this voting rights.
MF: So the ACLU, which is involved in this in Florida, is going to keep fighting it. They say that it violates the Constitution. Let’s talk more about what’s happening in Venezuela. The news continues to come out aoundJuan Guaido. So it’s interesting, we talked last week about the fact that he lost the presidency of the National Assembly. So he created his own fake National Assembly and went to El Nacional, the right-wing media outlet to hold his own quote unquote vote to elect himself as the president of the National Assembly. What’s so interesting about Venezuela is the whole situation with the National Assembly down there. It’s still a defunct body. All they really do in the National Assembly is talk about policies. They don’t have the authority or power to pass any legislation right now.
KZ: And it’s defunct because they are, the Supreme Court found election law violations that resulted in people being elected who may not have been elected if it hadn’t been for those violations. And therefore the Assembly need to correct that and they refused to do so. And so the assembly can’t act until those those seats are changed.
MF: Right. So now they kind of have these two assemblies, the one that’s actually officially recognized by the government and the new president of that is Luis Parra and they hold sessions where they debate issues and policies. And then they’re allowing Juan Guaido to go in there in the off hours to hold his own assembly with his own, I don’t know who these people are but…
KZ: His own supporters.
MF: Yeah, and they can have their little debates as well. But it’s interesting how Venezuela is taking this kind of conflict free approach to be like, okay, you want to have your own little fake assembly, you can go into the National Assembly and pretend to be the president.
KZ: Well they learned I think from the bizarre show that Guaido put on trying to climb the fence when he didn’t need to. He was actually allowed to go into the assembly by the authorities who were making sure people who are authorized go in. He was allowed to go in but he did this whole show of climbing the wall. So I guess the Maduro Administration and the National Assembly has decided just let him go in and talk. It makes no difference anyway, but Guaido is now being uncovered you know, it’s being uncovered that the US has been spending hundreds of millions of dollars on this coup and people want to know where the money went.
MF: The numbers have been totaled up and we have an article about this on Popular Resistance, but basically in 2019 alone, the opposition which Juan Guaido is part of, received three hundred and fifty million dollars. 286 million dollars came from our own US Agency on International Development, USAID. It’s usually supposed to be spent on you know aid.
KZ: Humanitarian aid, not coups.
MF: Right. But as Elliott Abrams said just a couple weeks ago, that money went towards media. So Guaido was actually paying media to cover him favorably. So much for a free press. And it also was being used for, on the National Assembly. So this whole like fake National Assembly thing we’re funding. He also got 20 million dollars from the Trump Administration. The USAID is saying that money went directly to Juan Guaido. Juan Guaido is saying he never got the money, it went to nonprofits.
KZ: There’s a lot of confusion about…
MF: And he has no idea where the money went he says.
KZ: There was a lot of confusion about where that money went to. USAID said some went to Juan Guaido, but they also said some was based on competitive contract bidding for NGOs and others and so it’s not all clear where this hundreds of millions of dollars went. And you know, it’s interesting. This is now coming out at a time when Guaido is violating the court order that says he can’t leave the country and going to Colombia in Bogota to meet with Mike Pompeo and other Latin American leaders. I wonder will Mike Pompeo ask him about where this money went? Will they discuss how these hundreds of millions of dollars were spent or they just will brush it under the rug? And then I saw also Guaido is planning a trip to Europe. This is all illegal. He’s not allowed to leave the country. He’s going out there around the world and lobbying. It’s amazing that he gets away with this and he may even come to the United States.
MF: Right. Well, he hasn’t been able to succeed in his coup attempts in Venezuela, so the only place he really can go and get any attention is outside of the country.
KZ: He can’t even draw a crowd in Venezuela.
MF: Yeah, a lot of the opposition is upset with him, especially because they want to know where the money went.
KZ: Well, that’s why he lost the presidency. The corruption around this money is open. People know about it. It is being investigated and that’s why a lot of the opposition has said we don’t want you as our president of the Assembly anymore.
MF: Let’s talk about Bolivia. As folks know, there’s been a coup there, a US-supported coup in Bolivia that happened after the elections last October. They’re going to be holding elections, presidential elections, a new election on May 3rd of this year. The MAS Party, Movement Towards Socialism Party, which is Evo Morales’s party, the former president who was re-elected last October, has now announced that they have two candidates, a president and vice presidential candidate for that election. The presidential candidate is Luis Arce. He’s the former economic minister that was a big part of Evo Morales’s economic plan for the country. And then the vice presidential candidate is the former foreign minister David Choquehuanca.
KZ: And they said, people who are looking at this are analyzing and saying this is an opportunity by the MAS Party to expand their base. The vice president comes from the indigenous community to solidify that base, which it was already where the MAS Party gets a lot of its political power. But having the former Finance Minister running as president is an outreach to the middle class and those who are wealthier in Bolivia. So it’s, they think this is a real opportunity to expand the base and perhaps win this election. Although we see so much going on down there to rig the election against the MAS Party. It’s gonna be very difficult for them to overcome the rigging that’s going on.
MF: The members of the MAS Party are still being persecuted by this coup government under Jeanine. Añez. Members of the MAS Party are being charged with all sorts of outrageous charges.
KZ: Doctors are being arrested and media people are being arrested. There’s real ongoing terrorism to try to frighten people and I’m sure on the day of the election, we will see troops and thugs outside of voting places, especially in indigenous communities.
MF: Let’s talk about Iran, something we’ve been talking about quite frequently lately. Looks like the Iranian government may be filing charges against President Trump, the US military and the US government for war crimes in the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
KZ: That would be a major step. And even though the US will not respect any decision from the ICC, it’s a very important process to go through. The ICC investigates this, puts out a report about it. It’s pretty obvious that the Trump Administration violated international law since there is no justification for the murder or the assassination of General Soleimani. It’s a very strong case the Iranians can put forward. I think it’s important for them to be held accountable. It’s good to see the rule of law being used rather than focusing on military force to respond to this attack.
MF: And of course, investigations are ongoing around the airliner, the Ukrainian airliner that was shot down in Iran a few hours after Iran launched missiles at the US bases in Iraq. And it’s reported that Iran is looking into whether there might have been a cyber attack against their radar system that would have led them to not be able to recognize that it was an airplane, a civilian airplane or that there may have been enemy infiltrators involved.
KZ: The Iranian air system had the ability to know that was a passenger plane, but the person who fired the missile said they lost communication. So investigation is needed to understand what really happened there. We definitely don’t know the full story yet.
MF: The US this past week just announced the new chief of the space operations for the new US Space Force is General John Jay Raymond.
KZ: So now the space force is taking shape. This is a very dangerous development to militarize outer space. It violates a treaty from back in the 1970s. The US is moving in this direction very quickly. Now that the Democrats and Republicans both agreed in the most recent NDAA to move the space force forward.
MF: So that was part of the National Defense Authorization Act and in the announcement of this new general, it was really interesting reading their rhetoric because they’re basically, the logic was that well, we don’t want to have any war in space but the best way to have peace in space is if we have a very strong military presence there. Does that sound familiar?
KZ: It’s the constant US excuse for escalation of the military budget, military weapons, troops around the world, bases around the world. We have to dominate and make it impossible for anyone to challenge our domination and controlling outer space is part of that process.
MF: Right. It’s peace through a strong military, I guess. That’s the, what we’ve all been indoctrinated in.
KZ: Nixon called it peace through strength.
MF: Right and this coming February is the expiration of the START Treaty. That’s the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that was started on February 5th in 2011. And this treaty, there’s a new report out saying that if it’s not renewed, this could really lead to even more of an arms race.
KZ: An escalation of the already existing arms race. We already see massive US spending on nuclear weapons. Now, we’re seeing the increased spending on outer space weapons. These are very expensive weapons systems that are going to lead to an arms race that we have never seen before, much bigger than we’ve seen in the past.
MF: Right and it could also lead to more escalation in space because one provision of the START Treaty is that countries are allowed to do inspections of other country’s weapons to know like what nuclear weapons and things they’re developing. Without the START Treaty, the countries won’t be able to have those on the ground weapons inspections. And so the speculation is that there will be a big escalation of surveillance in space so that they can try to watch what each other are doing.
KZ: We need to escalate in space because we are violating the treaties that allow for inspection on the ground. It’s a kind of a lose-lose proposition. We get out of the START Treaty so we can then use that excuse to get into outer space.
MF: Right but there is some good news. Cities in the United States are fighting back against this escalation towards nuclear war. There’s a campaign called Beyond the Brink. They now have more than 40 cities that have passed resolutions against the expansion of nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear war. They have five provisions they are basically calling for that there should be no ability to do a first strike in the United States. So we shouldn’t be allowed to just launch a nuclear bomb at another country that hasn’t attacked us, kind of like killing a general of a country that we’re not at war with. They want to get away from the sole authority where one person, the president, can authorize a nuclear attack. They want to take our nuclear weapons off of hair-trigger alert. It’s very dangerous to have them so ready to be used. They want to stop the new upgrade and modernizations of our nuclear weapons, 1.5 trillion dollar upgrade and then work to eliminate nuclear weapons. Other organizations involved are Beyond the Bomb and ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.
KZ: So if you’re not, if you city hasn’t passed a resolution yet, get involved with those organizations of Beyond the Brink and build this momentum for ending this nuclear arms race.
MF: Yeah. It’s really important. There’s lots of ways that people can get involved. We have an article about it on Popular Resistance. But if you look up Beyond the Brink, you’ll be able to find this. If our leaders launch a nuclear attack, it’s going to be us, the people in these cities especially close to sensitive areas that will be impacted by those decisions as well as what the impacts would be on the world of a nuclear winter. Many people in cities are also saying don’t invest in the military or militarization or policing, you need to start investing in our communities. And we talked about this last week with Jacqueline Luqman on Clearing the FOG.
KZ: That’s right. That new federal program from Donald Trump, Operation Relentless Pursuit, 71 million dollars plus a bunch of federal agencies getting involved with in seven cities to escalate law enforcement. This will lead to more mass arrests, more mass incarceration, but will not deal with the real issues that concern these urban areas that have been neglected really for generations.
MF: Yes, and people in Minneapolis are taking action to fight back against that disinvestment. They’ve recently have a campaign called Reclaim the Block. The city in their new budget is giving a hundred and ninety-three million dollars to the police department. That’s a third of the city budget and the people in Reclaim the Block are saying, look our biggest problems are things like homelessness, opioid addiction, mental health needs and all of these are made worse by police. The police are not the answer. And so they’re saying invest in programs instead that address these issues.
KZ: And that’s true in urban areas throughout the country. It’s certainly true in our city of Baltimore where we spend more on the police than we do on health and education combined and it’s true across the country. We have seen decades, really generations of neglect and rather than confronting that neglect, the approach is to militarize the police, make them into an occupying force and keep those neglected communities away from the communities that are invested in.
MF: Right and continue to oppress them. And so Reclaim the Block and others in Minneapolis came up with their own budget and how they would like money spent on programs to end homelessness, provide mental health services and do harm reduction, which we talked about quite a bit with Jacqueline last week.
KZ: Our newsletter on Popular Resistance this week focuses is on the militarization of the police and how that is the mirror of the militarization of US policy abroad. So both at home and abroad, we are being dominated by a militaristic approach and the result really is not good for those communities or for our nation.
MF: One of the recommendations is to legalize drugs because they don’t belong in the law enforcement arena. And Congress held a hearing on Wednesday in the House Energy and Commerce Committee on cannabis policy for the new decade and looking at the ways that federal law is in conflict with what states are doing on these issues.
KZ: And that’s been an issue, you know, I’ve worked on for a long time, since 1980 when I was chief counsel and then director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and a co-founder of the Drug Policy Foundation. The good news is we’re finally making progress. Eleven states have adult legal use. More than three dozen have medical marijuana being legal. And we’re seeing harm reduction policies like needle exchange being put in place across the country. We need to do a lot more. There’s so many other choices beyond spending money on police, you know. Just, I’ll just mention one that has been tried in eight countries now, which is legal access to heroin or allowing heroin to be brought for public consumption before a healthcare worker. These programs in these eight countries have resulted in dramatic reductions in crime because people don’t need to steal to pay for their heroin. They don’t need to prostitute. They don’t need to commit other crimes including drug dealing to fund their heroin use. It results in less homelessness, results in people getting employment, rebuilding their relationships and results in less drug use as well. There’s a lot we could learn if we would open our eyes to real solutions, not doing the same thing over and over. We already have the largest prison population in the world, 25% of the world’s prisoners and we only have five percent of the world’s population. How many times do you have to repeat the same mistake over and over before you realize it’s a mistake?
MF: And The Sentencing Project does some really excellent work on the incarceration rates in the United States and how we compare around the world. And we are really at the top and you look at you know, people are always talking about oh China is such a repressive country, but then you look at the incarceration rates there compared to ours and there’s really, ours is multiple multiple times higher.
KZ: And it’s not just incarceration rates. It’s also police violence. You compare the United States as far as civilians being killed to other countries, we are so far ahead of any developed country in the world per on a per capita basis. I mean it’s just obscene. We have to really restructure our police and our law enforcement and our prison system and come up with health and social solutions to the problem of drug abuse. You can’t solve it with police.
MF: Another very important issue for the United States is women’s rights. And that took another step forward in the Virginia legislature recently voting to become the 38th state to support the Equal Rights Amendment. That was an amendment that was passed by Congress in 1972. But before it is ratified, it needs to have 2/3 of the states.
KZ: And that was it, that made it 2/3 finally and now there’ll be litigation about that because the Department of Justice says it’s too late. Traditionally, constitutional amendments don’t have a deadline. This one did and there’s litigation already being filed to challenge whether or not that can go forward.
MF: And now it’s interesting that the Trump administration like immediately after Virginia approves it, the Trump Administration says, oh no, it’s too late. Like what’s that all about?
MF: Well, there you go. Okay, let’s talk about another study from the Center for Biological Diversity looking at the approval of pesticides. So from 2017 to 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency had a 94 percent approval rate for pesticides, 1190 new pesticides put out into the market and some of these are some of the worst most toxic pesticides.
KZ: We have been poisoning our food in this country for a very long time. Both political parties under presidents from Democrats and Republicans have put in place in the FDA people from Monsanto and other pesticide companies. And so we get a pesticide regulatory authority rather than a Food and Drug Administration actually protecting the public interest.
MF: That’s right and the Center for Biological Diversity points out that even people who buy organic foods are still impacted by these pesticides because there’s just no way to control it. They get into the soil. They get into the water and then that gets into the whole food system. And so organic producers are actually starting to look at a new label that would be a glyphosate free food, you know, showing that there are no glyphosate residues in the food that they produce.
KZ: It’s a very challenging thing for a farmer to meet because glyphosate is so widely used. Even Ben and Jerry’s ice cream has glyphosate in it.
MF: Cereals have it in them.
KZ: Cereals. It’s just it’s so widespread. We need to put in place the precautionary principle, which means that you don’t put something into the market like a pesticide until you prove it’s safe. Instead of the precautionary principle, we put in, we have the profit system, the profit principle. If it makes a profit, it gets approved.
MF: Right and then if it causes harm, you have to prove as the individual that you are harmed by it. And in fact, so for our listeners who may not know what glyphosate is that’s the chemical in Roundup, the weed killer, which is used very liberally in our society. It’s sprayed in playgrounds and parks and things like that and glyphosate is associated with cancer. There’s now thousands of cases against Monsanto, which is now owned by Bayer, because of people who believe their cancers were caused by glyphosate.
KZ: And it creates this kind of bizarre spiral. You start using glyphosate and then what do they do, they put in genetically modified organisms so that they can spray glyphosate more. The GMO foods, the reason that you have GMO foods is an order to allow farmers to spray glyphosate to kill the weeds and so it just is an escalating spiral of even more dangerous pesticides replacing the ones that the GMOs, you know, protect against. It’s just like, it just gets worse and worse and we poison ourselves in this process.
MF: Right. So the seeds that are resistant to the glyphosate and then so they can spray the glyphosate and kill the weeds. Well now the weeds are becoming resistant to the glyphosate. So they have to use these new chemicals in place of that. Last week, we also talked about a victory in Union Hill, a historic black community in Southern Virginia that stopped a compressor station. a very dirty. This is something that’s used for gas pipelines to push the gas through the pipeline and they’re very toxic. But there’s another compressor station being put in in Weymouth, Massachusetts. This one is close to low-income communities that are already surrounded by other fossil fuel toxic facilities. And so protesters took it into their hands last week to block the construction by sitting in the road and preventing the concrete trucks from going through. Nine people were arrested in that action.
KZ: And there are constant actions against infrastructure for fossil fuels. One organization that we’re involved with is Beyond Extreme Energy. That’s a great place to go to learn about actions of many local groups around the country. This is one of the areas of real strength I think in the anti-climate movement, the anti-fracking movement, the anti-infrastructure movement. So there is a lot of work to be done and a lot of work being done.
MF: This particular compressor station is important because it would allow fracked gas to come from the Marcellus Shale, which is you know, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Ohio that whole area going up to Canada. So it’s really kind of a vital link that would allow that to happen if it’s built. And of course with the climate emergency going on, we need to be not building more fossil fuel infrastructure. And that’s what protesters in Portland are going to be telling the court why they took action last April against a company, Zenith Energy, which is a big storage fossil fuel storage facility in Portland that they say is responsible for worsening the climate crisis. So they’re going to use the necessity defense.
KZ: The necessity defense means that you’re breaking a law out of the necessity of preventing a greater harm. And their view is going to be supported by the science because the scientists said several years ago we need to stop building infrastructure for fossil fuels And unfortunately since that time under the Obama Administration and the Trump Administration, we’ve seen an escalation of infrastructure building. In fact Obama was so proud of that, he told Texas CEOs that he made the US number one in oil and gas and Trump now has taken credit for that as well.
MF: Let’s talk about housing for a moment because of course the United States has an affordable housing crisis. In Salt Lake City, there are over 2,000 people who are without homes. The city closed down one of the largest shelters last November, a shelter located in the central part of the city where it was easy for folks to get to it. It had eleven hundred beds. They’ve set up some smaller shelters outside of the city more difficult to get to that only provide 400 beds and so in protest, people set up an unsheltered solidarity camp that housed 80 people outside. That was set up on January 2nd. Police came in and raided it on January 5th.
KZ: The way we treat homeless across the country is really pretty despicable. The solution to the houseless, the homeless crisis is to make housing available. And we have a housing crisis in this country that affects not just the homeless, the houseless but also affects working-class, middle-class. People are struggling to keep in their homes.
MF: That’s right. Well, it’s interesting because we have a lot of empty homes in the United States. We have more empty homes in the United States than we have people without homes and what’s happening, it’s happening in our city and it’s happening in other cities as well, is that speculators buy up these vacant properties and then they basically sit on them until they can sell them for a higher price. So they were, they profit from keeping them vacant. And so women in, some moms in Oakland California said enough of this. They had actually even tried to buy a property. The owner wouldn’t allow them to buy it. They took over an abandoned property and started living in it. These are working moms with children and they needed a place to live. And the Oakland police came in riot gear and evicted them from that house. Let’s just end with one more report that I want to talk about, a new report done by PLOS Medicine. They looked at 22 studies of a single-payer health care system from, done by from conservative to progressive institutions, and they found that all of them showed that a national improved Medicare for all would save money. 19 of those 22 studies found that they would save money in the first year and all of them found that over 10 years, it would save money.
KZ: That’s what makes this whole improved Medicare-for-all debate so absurd. It’s always about how do we pay for it? Well, the answer is you pay for something that’s less expensive very easily. And so this will save money. This will reduce the amount of our overall economy, of our GDP that is spent on health care. We are the highest in the world right now as far as per capita spending goes and we have one of the least effective healthcare systems of developed countries. We don’t provide health care to all. We have 30,000 people a year who die just from not having insurance and more than a hundred thousand who would survive in a country like the UK or France where they have a more effective healthcare system based on Single Payer.
MF: So let’s get to our interview with Dr. Marsha Coleman Adebayo. We’ll take a short musical break and we’ll be right back.
Margaret Flowers (MF): You’re listening to Clearing the FOG, speaking truth to expose the forces of greed with Margaret Flowers…
Kevin Zeese (KZ): And Kevin Zeese.
MF: And now let’s turn to our guest Dr. Marsha Coleman Adebayo. Marsha is an EPA whistleblower. She is an author and also a journalist who’s writing is found at the Black Agenda Report and she’s the president of the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition. Thank you for taking time to join us Marsha.
Marsha Coleman Adebayo (MCA): Thank you for having me.
KZ: Marsha, you know, we work with you on lots of projects and this is such an important campaign you have been part of and helping to lead. Can you tell us how this began and what got you started?
MCA: Yes, I’d love to. 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 just dozens of black churches, but through gentrification and just you know, 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. And so 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. And they started talking about a new sector plan that they were going to redevelop this area in Bethesda. And then they started, I think the director Gwen Wright made the comment, you know, there’s a rumor that there could be, a faint rumor I think she said, that there could be an old African American cemetery somewhere in the area, but don’t worry about it because you know, 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 provide concern your little heads about it because we’ll take care of it. And there was a man sitting to my left. His name is Harvey Matthews. And he raised his hand and she called on him and he said this is not you know some idea or some, you know, faint you know 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 you know as a social scientist, you know, 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 that I was in where you know all the scientists and archaeologists sitting around the table just had to drop two pins in the face of that kind of truth. And so they really didn’t know how to respond to that except 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. And at that point everything changed and the corporation, which was at that point Equity One, I mean I saw the guy become really flushed because I mean they spent like, you know tens of millions of dollars in this area. You had the county government that it also invested all this time and effort and money into this area and now it was all crumbling right before their faces. And at that point, they called an adjournment to the meeting and said, you know, we’ll meet in a couple of weeks. But then I started getting a flurry of phone calls saying well, you know, 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 and that’s when we realized okay we have really touched a third rail here.
MF: So let’s go back even a little further 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: Well, why don’t we go back further? Because that’s the problem with 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 you’re sort of cornered into these little teeny holes of talking about, you know, our history starting in the United States, you sort of wiped out three or four thousand years even longer history before we got to River Road. So 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 Yuruba kingdom and that these were very advanced civilizations of higher learning you know where the Greeks were coming to West Africa to learn mathematics. Let’s talk about the University of Sankara, which you know, eventually became started being called at the colloquial level the University of Timbuktu where they were performing cataract surgery. Let’s talk about you know, the building blocks of agriculture and how to redesign waterways. All of these activities and these skills and these institutions of higher learning is the reason why Europeans went to West and Central Africa and decided to kidnap all of these people and to transfer all that knowledge so that if you look at what Europeans eventually called the transatlantic slave trade, which was in fact the largest transfer of intellectual knowledge that the world has ever seen. So basically the Europeans transferred all this agricultural and technological and science from West and Central Africa to the United States approximately, well, it lands in sort of in Jamestown is 400 years ago. But of course the Spanish had already colonized Florida by that time had already started kidnapping Africans and bringing them to that part of the country long before Jamestown. But 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 wiping out Native American communities along River Road, and then basically stealing that land, committing genocide on the people and then you begin to get all of these what Europeans are of course call plantations, but of course 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 and they worked from the first glimmer of light in the morning until they couldn’t see anymore and they were literally worked to death. And so which 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. And so we are now looking at about sixteen seventy when the first Africans arrived on River Road and we’ve been really homing in on one particular death camp and that’s the death camp owned by the Councilman brothers. And 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. And so 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.
KZ: So much history is erased. You know…
MCA: So much history is erased and you wonder in whose interest. I mean, 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, right and 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.
KZ: You’ve done incredible work, historic. I mean things like Truth and Reconciliation. And you can’t have reconciliation without truth and so when…
MCA: Well, you can’t have reconciliation without justice. And the reason why they’re so concerned about this is because they’re concerned about the issue of reparations because you had as you said Margaret, you had a community of Africans who had somehow someway survived the torture of European barbarism that they, you know, 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 just being murdered and just raped and so 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. I mean Europeans like to say, oh, we you know, we had some paying of conscience and we decided to end the slave trade. Oh that’s just complete and total nonsense. The reason why they ended bringing Africans into the United States was because 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. And River Road was no different than that. Around 1807, the land begins, it is just exhausted because tobacco is really hard on the soil and the land on River Road was just not yielding the same amount of tobacco. It was, the soil was depleted. The question for the Councilman brothers as well as these other terrorists that were kidnapping Africans is that how we are 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. And so 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 where African girls were being bought for at around 8 years old and then what they call primed, which means they were basically on the pedophile market until their menses started and 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 isn’t it 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. And these were very sophisticated sexual breeding areas where they had you know, a doctor who went from one place to another. They had nurses. They had, you know midwives. They had the birthing areas. They had the raping areas. I mean, these are very sophisticated operations and the thought was that one African girl could exponentially produce about 75 people. So that if she had say 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, you know 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. So when I say this community survived somehow all of this torture, that’s what I’m talking about. And then so after 1864, we get Africans leaving these death camps and beginning to build their homes and 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, but I could have that wrong. She actually goes and she buys the land that we now call Moses African Cemetery. So why did she buy that land? She buys that land because she knows that her relatives are in that land. And 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 it’s actually buried in Moses African Cemetery. So the church’s roots go back so far with that land. And then 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, of course, they’re eventually run off of the land and then white developers basically steal the land from the black benevolent society and that is how we get to where we’re at today.
MF: Wow. So this is all history that you’ve learned through the course from that first meeting at the Planning Commission until now.
MF: Can you talk about how you’ve been able to uncover this information for others who may have similar interests?
MCA: It’s not me. I mean, we are blessed with the most amazing historians and archivists, I think. People like Amy Riskin and Dr. Tim Willard and so many other people who have stepped forward. They’re so passionate about spending this history and they just have massive tools in which to do so. And so we’ve been just incredibly blessed to work with all these various people from our community who come forward to say I have a little bit 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 that. Dr. Willard had been able. It was Dr. Willard Tim Willard, who is the I think the cochair 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 because when you looked at the census report, it was all made up of young African girls and some African boys, but and maybe two or three African adults. So we knew that that was not a typical tobacco plantation because tobacco is really hard to grow and it you know takes a lot of skill and that’s a lot of back, so you’re not looking at seven or eight-year-old girls doing that kind of work and so we were able to begin to just stitch together the story from looking at those kinds of documents. And so we’ve just been incredibly blessed by having I think the most creative and most incredible historians and archivists work with us on this project.
KZ: Wow, what an amazing development and story and when I think about this, trying to hide this history in one of the wealthiest counties in the country. This should be really something that is a museum that displays…
MCA: Exactly and that’s what we’re fighting for. I know time is not, you know, we only have 30 minutes, but that’s what we’re fighting for. Can you imagine we’re fighting to bring a project to Bethesda that’s going to make Bethesda richer. I mean, it’s just incredible to think about this because once we are successful and we build a first-class museum and a first-class memorial to these women, 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 own land. I mean, that’s unbelievable. I mean 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 little banking system their co-op system to farming lands and selling the skins and the meat from animals. I mean there was a very rich and prosperous community that was tucked away, but they supported each other and they loved each other and they had their outside, you know, relationships with white folks. But basically they huddled together to protect each other and support each other and that community existed until 1962 when the county in collusion with businesses decided that Africans no longer were welcomed on River Road and one by one they stole each house on River Road. They wiped out the black community here. 100% of every black home was taken away. And so if you’re in Bethesda, and you go to the Whole Foods Market on River Road, that was the home of Harvey Matthews’ family. And that land was sold in order to build this little shopping center for around I think 70 million dollars about 10 years ago, and 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, but instead Harvey Matthews is struggling. His family is struggling while that land is now owned by Amazon.
MF: Can you describe for our listeners what happened to the Bethesda African Cemetery, what it looks like right now?
MCA: This is as I said, 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 building in the 1960s, they were building the basement and they of course came in contact with all of these remains and they decided to sort of push all these remains into a mass grave and then when the remains kept popping up during rainy season because it’s a very, it’s a downhill area, they decided to lock in the grave by pouring over the graves and making it into a parking lot. So first they filled in the graves by putting 30 feet of fill dirt on top of the remains and then they put basically a tarmac or they put an asphalt top on top of the grave. So right now if you go there what you’re going to see is a parking lot and that’s where our ancestors are located is, you know, it’s under a parking lot. We hosted a king from Benin from the kingdom of Porto Novo a couple of months ago. And when we got to that area, he was just, 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.
MF: And 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. We’ve had as you know, you were at the first demonstration that where we marched from you and Kevin from Macedonia over to the cemetery and we were in the infancy in terms of our knowledge of what was underneath the parking lot at that point. But as you could see that 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. And so the public has been fabulous. And of course no one supports desecration. I mean, it would be very difficult for people to actually say they support desecration of graves. So we don’t have a lot of people in the public saying, you know, we think the grave should be continued to be desecrated. On the other hand, the government has been just the exact opposite. The HOC has said they’re perfectly happy with the status quo being in place, that they have no plan, 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 because the rules of engagement in the county is they have all these very, you know, weird accountability rules where nobody can quite figure out you know, what is the chain of command here and that’s because quite frankly, 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. I mean 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 with 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. And 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 for the entire 30 minutes now 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. And of course what happened at that point is that the system reacts always in a very brutal and retaliatory way and 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.
KZ: It’s so true and if people want to get involved they should go to Bethesda African Cemetery dot-org, Bethesda African Cemetery dot org to get involved because you need support. You need people to know this. This is still an ongoing campaign. This has not been won and what’s important about it’s not just this one cemetery in Montgomery County. This is a history for the whole country.
MCA: Yeah, and it’s one of the reasons why we filed papers yesterday at the, with the state attorney’s office, McCarthy asking him now to file charges against the HOC on the basis of hate crimes because 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. And 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 a 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 the corporate memory?
KZ: That’s right and 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. We ned to understand it so we can come to terms with it. And then the restitution issue you as you mentioned plays right into that. Once people understand that this is what was going on, that young girls and boys were being sold into sexual abuse. It’s just, this is like we have to understand this about ourselves so we can come to terms with ourselves.
MF: And I just quickly want to add for our listeners that HOC is the Housing Opportunities Commission.
KZ: Right, in Montgomery County.
MCA: Which is really just, it’s housing opportunities. That is such a beautiful name, but in fact, this is just a facade for developers to say that they’re engaged in building, you know low-income housing when in fact the majority of the housing that is really being built under this HOC, it’s really for market-rate residents in Montgomery County. And 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 that they’re really and they’re using the veneer of low-income housing to do their dirty work.
MF: 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. They’re own HOC found out that there were remains under a building that they that, they actually had residents in this building. They have three buildings actually three buildings and they actually relocated it. 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. And 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. But I just wanted your listeners to know also we have not won this battle. I mean, we’ve won a lot of victories. We forced two multinational corporations, billion-dollar corporations to stand down and sort of the back off but we have by no means won this battle. We’re still fighting Montgomery County and we’re still fighting the HOC and that land is still in the hands of enemies 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.
KZ: We need people in our listening audience to go to Bethesda African Cemetery dot-org and learn about this issue. Write about this issue. Spread the word about this issue. We need people who really have an understanding of the history of slavery in this country, the history of white supremacy and abuse of black people of African descent need to speak about this and write about this. This is such an important history that you’ve uncovered. I remember the first event, you know, you mentioned we were at the first march, even then before all this history was uncovered, when at that point, it was a cemetery that had been turned into a parking lot. That was the story. Now, you know so much more. Even then you had a mass audience show up. It’s gotten bigger and stronger but it still has not defeated the developers that dominate Montgomery County.
MCA: They’re very powerful here. I mean because land in Montgomery County and Bethesda in particular is just every single inch is fought for and this is really flying in the face of the concept of private property versus sacred property. And 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.
MF: Yes. Absolutely. And you’ve built such a beautiful community there Marsha. We have so much admiration for the work that you are doing and everyone there in Montgomery County. Thank you so much for taking time to speak with us today about this.
MCA: If I just have one more second. 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 in your listening public to please come out and join the celebration and we’re going to sing and we’re going to have a great time just celebrating the community on River Road. Thank you.