Major court victory against desecration of Bethesda’s Moses African Cemetery
Protesting desecration. | via Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition

BETHESDA, Md.—A major victory has been won by the progressive community here and the organizers of the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition (BACC) who have been fighting for years to stop the desecration of the Moses African Cemetery. On Monday, Oct. 25, 2021, a Maryland judge ordered a halt on the sale of the historic gravesite located on River Road, across the street from the historic Macedonia Baptist Church.

The cemetery is among the largest mass graves in the United States and an international site of genocide, according to a number of local historians and anthropologists.

“This is an important and historic victory, not just for the plaintiffs in this lawsuit, but for all of those throughout the United States who have ancestors buried in traditional cemeteries that have since been obliterated, destroyed, paved over, or converted to other uses,” said the BACC’s attorney, Steve Lieberman.

“Judge Smith’s brilliant and thorough analysis will pave the way for similar actions throughout the country designed to ensure justice for those in our society who are most helpless—those who have passed away and rely on others to protect the sanctity of their eternal rest. Hopefully, the Housing Opportunities Commission will now abandon its illegal efforts to sell this land in violation of Maryland law.”

For years, the coalition and members of the Macedonia Baptist Church have been fighting for complete community control over the historic burial site, facing off against county executives and real estate developers who have planned different projects on the ancestorial site.

Over the past year, BACC has taken the fight straight to the developers, who have been trying to construct a storage facility on top of the African gravesite by hosting weekly demonstrations in front of the construction development site, protesting at the county executive offices, and developing a serious campaign around this issue. This struggle is central to the fight against further gentrification and Black displacement in Bethesda.

Desecration underway: Excavators contracted by private real estate developers proceed with construction work at the site. | via Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition

In July of this year, the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission attempted a $50 million sale of Westwood Tower in Bethesda—apartments covering part of the burial ground—to a local investment firm, Charger Ventures. The move drew intense opposition from BACC, leading to a lawsuit and major demonstrations in front of the homes and offices of Charger Ventures.

Materials prepared for the lawsuit included historical accounts indicating that part of the cemetery was paved over with asphalt for a parking lot when the Westwood Tower Apartments were built in the late 1960s. BACC accused the commission of violating Maryland state law by failing to get court approval for the apartment complex’s sale, which is normally required when cemetery property is involved.

Deciding the case, Judge Karla wrote that there is a public interest in preserving the property, recognizing that the contract did not require the new developer to abide by this and noting it was critical to have input from community members who are directly impacted.

As BACC gears up for an international conference on the desecration of African burial sites upcoming on Oct. 30, its leaders continue to broaden their struggle.

“It’s a historic landmark decision that will go down in history next to Brown v. Board of Education in contradicting the infamous Dred Scott ruling by the Supreme Court that held that Blacks ‘have no rights that whites were bound to respect,’” says BACC President Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo.

“Today’s ruling says that Africans and their descendants have rights to their humanity and dignity. This is a landmark decision. Judge Smith may become the heir to the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.”

“We have been living and dying—and resting—in our community for 370 years,” said Rev. Dr. Segun Adebayo, Pastor of Macedonia Baptist Church. “Our beloved community remains very much alive in us, and we must decide how our community is to be memorialized after so many years of desecration.”


Jamal Rich
Jamal Rich

Jamal Rich writes from Washington, D.C. where he is active with the Claudia Jones School for Political Education.