Above Photo: Supporters Of The Moses African Cemetery In Bethesda, Md., March Past Macedonia Baptist Church To Protest Plans To Sell The Land. Gail Rebhan.
Business as Usual for Housing Opportunities Commission.
In the wealthy Washington, DC suburb of Bethesda, Maryland, just off River Road, there is an asphalt parking lot that covers the graves of hundreds African Americans. That parking lot is the subject of a lawsuit in which descendants of individuals buried in the Moses Cemetery, the Pastor of the Macedonia Baptist Church, and the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition have asked a court to prevent the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission (“HOC”), the quasi-governmental agency that owns the parking lot, from selling the parking lot and the adjacent land and building to a developer for $51 million. Under the terms of the sales agreement, the developer would have been free to continue to use the burial ground as a parking lot, to build another structure on top of the burial ground, or even to convert the burial ground into a dog park.
Fortunately, last October, Judge Karla Smith of the Circuit Court for Montgomery County granted an injunction against the sale of the property. In her ruling, Judge Smith found that there are hundreds of bodies buried under the asphalt, and “treating the souls interred at Moses Cemetery with the equity and respect that they did not receive in life certainly is in the public interest”.
How could anyone disagree with the unobjectionable proposition that it is wrong to sell a burial ground to be used as something else – a dog park, a parking lot, a building – without restrictions, without conditions related to the treatment of those buried there, and without input from the community or those related the individuals buried there? But, strangely enough, throughout the lawsuit, HOC has done just that. At the hearing, HOC argued—in the face of obituaries, death certificates, property deeds, and expert testimony, all acknowledging the existence of burials on the property —that there was no evidence that there are bodies under the parking lot. HOC’s frivolous position was soundly rejected by the Court.
Before the Civil War there were at least four plantations in the River Road area of Bethesda, Maryland. At the end of the Civil War, with the emancipation of those who had been enslaved on these plantations, a thriving African American community sprang up in the River Road area. In 1911, the Moses African Cemetery was formally established on a plot of land now known today as Parcels 175 and 177, just west of River Road. According to death notices and obituaries, members of the local River Road community were buried in this cemetery in the decades that followed. Indeed, a tax assessment associated with the 1958 sale of the land clearly identified the cemetery.
Notwithstanding this, in the mid-1960s, a developer constructed a large apartment complex known as Westwood Towers on the land adjacent the Cemetery, and bulldozed or otherwise removed the gravestones in the Cemetery, paving over that land for use as a parking lot. According to the Ottery Report, an archaeological study on the use of the land as a cemetery, human remains were uncovered during grading for the parking lot. Nonetheless, the work continued, and the remains were never systematically removed. Thus, for the last 50 years, every day, cars have parked on top of the graves.
That is why, when HOC announced that it intended to sell Parcel 175 to a developer, we brought a lawsuit asking the Court to enjoin the sale of the property. Under Maryland law, there is a detailed statutory scheme that applies to land that is or was used as a burial ground, which prevents the sale of such land for non-burial purposes unless the owner goes into court and obtains court permission to sell the property. That permission cannot be granted unless the court provides interested parties—including the descendants of those buried on that land—with notice and the opportunity to be heard. And the court has the power to block the sale, or to impose appropriate terms and conditions on the sale of a property.
All of this, of course, makes sense. No one wants the land where their parents or grandparents are buried to be used for a parking lot—or a dog park. But, throughout the United States, traditional African American cemeteries have often disappeared under housing developments and highways. That is what happened to the Moses African Cemetery.
Fortunately, a jurist with great wisdom chose to apply Maryland law to prevent further injustice to those buried under the parking lot at Parcel 175. But now HOC is trying to undo that ruling. We can hope that even if the HOC does not see the error of the path it has chosen, the appellate court will provide proper illumination and guidance, and that the graves will, at long last, be treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve.