Fighting to sanctify sacred ground
By Tim Willard
The Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition (BACC) has been seeking sanctification of a historic African American burial ground that dates from the days of enslavement and was active until the 1930s, and recovery of the history of the once-thriving African American community in the area that was buried when the community was paved over.
BACC is working to celebrate these lives in the form of a living memorial, a museum that will educate future generations about the history—both joyous and tragic—of the Bethesda African Community, its resilience, determination and talents, as well as its ethnic cleansing, the obliteration of its history and desecration.
For two years, BACC members spoke during every public meeting of the Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC) which owns a parking lot that covers part of the cemetery. Unable to get satisfaction, BACC engaged the public and the media, generating hundreds of media mentions.
Rev. Segun Adebayo testifies before the HOC on January 8, 2020.
When the Bethesda Self-Storage company began building a storage facility on another portion of the burial ground, BACC took to the streets to protest—and also went to the legal system. Photographs of bone fragments, bottles and even a tombstone were presented to the state attorney.
In 2021, the HOC attempted to sell the portion of the cemetery that they owned to the private company, Charger Ventures, for $70 million. BACC brought suit to stop the sale citing a little-used Maryland law that required anyone selling cemetery land to consult with the descendant community first to address their concerns. In another David and Goliath moment, BACC prevailed. After the decision, the company backed out of the deal.
Steven Lieberman, an attorney for the BACC, said that the county could choose to appeal Smith’s decision or attempt to obtain court approval of the cemetery sale, but also noted that this victory could influence decisions in other places regarding the sale of burial grounds.
BACC will continue to fight until we win a proper memorialization of Moses Cemetery and uncovering of the historic African American community on River Road.
Photo by Gail Rebhan.