The History of the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition

By Kaleab Eshete

The Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition (BACC) is a non-profit organization founded in 2016 through the Macedonia Baptist Church. Made up of volunteers, activists, community groups and faith-based institutions, BACC primarily focuses on issues of social justice, and particularly the desecration of Moses Cemetery on River Road. 

The history of BACC is the history of River Road, and vice versa. One is not complete without the other. The history of the Free Black Community on River Road dates back to 1869 when emancipated Africans began purchasing land along River Road. Prior to this, cabins for the enslaved ringed the land.  It was swampy, hilly land, a typical burial land for enslaved Africns.  The poor quality of the land was a main reason it was sold to newly freed Blacks. In 1869, Francis and Charlotte Gray purchased six acres of land and started the  community known as “Graysville.”  The community was made up of freed Africans who owned their own land as well as  others who lived in former slave cabins. Soon after, in 1875, Francis Gray established a Methodist church in Graysville along River Road. This church was later superseded by the Macedonia  Baptist Church. From  the community’s establishments until  1935 there were 20 documented burials on River Road. Naturally the church is connected to the graveyards as most of the deceased attended the Methodist church. 

By the 1950s, the cemetery land had been bought by land speculators.  In the 1960s, it had been partly paved over and turned into parking lots and buildings..  In 1969 construction began for the 15 story Westwood Tower building, uncovering remains from the old cemetery. Despite this, construction continued.  Eye witnesses recalled  that there were frequent construction stoppages due to human remains being uncovered. 

In 2016 a new development was created to construct a parking garage and new apartment buildings on top of Moses cemetery. Despite the insistence of Mr. Harvey Matthews, who grew up on River Road and a lifelong congregant of Macedonia Baptist Church, the planning board publicly denied the existence of the cemetery. In response to this threat, the Macedonia Baptist church began to fight back against the planning board.  By 2019, the BACC was a part of the struggle to save Moses Cemetery along with Macedonia. 

Despite countless protests and petitions, construction for a self-storage system began on land adjacent to the “official” cemetery but likely part of the older burial grounds.. During construction, the BACC gathered photographic evidence of tombstones and remains found during excavation. In spite of these photographs the state attorney remained indifferent and construction continued. 

As reported by Tim Willard in his article The History of and Struggle for Moses African Cemetery, After 3 years of fighting the Housing opportunities committee (HOC) and the planning board, BACC had its first major victory.When HOC tried to sell the Westbard apartments to Charger Ventures, BACC brought suit citing a law that requires consultation with the descendant community before any cemetery land could be sold. BACC argued the complex was built on top of a historical gravesite called the Moses Macedonia African Cemetery in the 1960s. In October 2021, Judge  Karla Smith of the Montgomery County Circuit Court granted a preliminary injunction against the Westwood Tower sale while also denying a request from the HOC to dismiss the suit following an 11 hour hearing in the circuit court.”

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