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.
A Montgomery County Circuit Court ruled Wednesday, September 1st, 2021, that Montgomery County may not sell the land that includes the historic Moses African Cemetery in Bethesda, Maryland. Judge Karla Smith issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) forbidding the sale of the cemetery, currently owned by the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC.) This ruling is seen as historic because of the rarity of communities prevailing in court over multi-million-dollar corporations and government agencies. The sale of the cemetery took place without a hearing or public notice, essentially under the cover of darkness. The next step is a hearing on a preliminary injunction which will be held Sept. 27th, 2021.
As someone who grew up in Montgomery County, I’ve heard and seen countless declarations from acquaintances, teachers and government officials that the county is incredibly progressive when it comes to racial justice. In my experience, many of those who sustain this claim will back it up with references to the diversity of county residents or to progressive legislation such as the CROWN Act, which prohibits discrimination based on natural and protective hairstyles. In addition, praise for Montgomery County’s progressivism has almost always included some kind of juxtaposition to more “backwards” parts of Maryland or Southern states.