Demonstrators gather near the presumed site of the Moses Cemetery in Bethesda, Maryland, to protest construction on sacred land. (Roy Lewis/The Washington Informer)
Demonstrators gather near the presumed site of the Moses Cemetery in Bethesda, Maryland, to protest construction on sacred land. (Roy Lewis/The Washington Informer)

The controversy surrounding a construction site behind a McDonald’s franchise along River Road has revolved around the question of whether Parcel 242, atop which Montgomery County Parks and Planning is building a storage facility, indeed served as a final resting place for enslaved and formerly enslaved Africans who lived in the community.

Though Montgomery County maps and other records recognize nearby Parcels 171 and 177 as the burial ground known as Moses African Cemetery, members of the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition (BACC) have long maintained that Parcels 242 and 191 also deserve that designation, particularly since its former owner, the Warren family, was known to have buried loved ones on that property before tax increases and urban revitalization projects pushed them and other people of African descent out of Bethesda.

Since late June, BACC has protested in demand of a cessation of construction, testing of Parcel 242 for human remains, and the plot of land’s inclusion into the area known as Moses African Cemetery.

This crusade recently intensified with Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich’s alleged admission of an archeological discovery and BACC’s introduction of a lawsuit.

“What happened with the Warren family and Parcel 242 was about making Black folks scatter from the land. We believe before their land was stolen, part of it was used as a cemetery,” said Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, who also serves as social justice coordinator for Macedonia Baptist Church, an institution of historical significance to Black people who lived along River Road.

In testimonies before the Montgomery County Planning Board last week, BACC members framed the battle over Parcel 242 as an issue of Black people’s marginalization along the entire spectrum of their existence. Well-regarded archeologist Dr. Michael Blakey, as he had done in letters to county officials and conversations with Elrich, requested an independent archeological examination and inclusion of the descendent community in key decisions.

Meanwhile, Coleman-Adebayo referenced the Standards and Guidelines for Archeological Investigations in Maryland and the state’s hate crime laws to argue that Elrich and the Montgomery County Planning Board have the latitude to stop construction.

“We do think that there are members of the Warren family and other families buried in that land. Parcel 242 is what we consider the old Moses African Cemetery,” she said.

“The new one is above the hill [in Parcel 177], but 242 is where bodies from major plantations on River Road — or what we call death camps — were dumped,” Coleman-Adebayo added.

“Parcel 242 is very close to River Road and it’s where the three death camps would dump Africans. The people buried further up were buried after emancipation. That’s why Parcel 242 is so important.”

Throughout much of last week, BACC members protested near Parcel 242 on three occasions and even led a march to Elrich’s Takoma Park residence as part of an effort to pressure him to step in and cease construction on the site.

These acts of civil disobedience differed from previous iterations, due mostly to the alleged assault of protesters by private security guards and a local business owner who they said tried to hit them with his white truck — all as Montgomery County police officers watched.

As determined in a transcript obtained by The Informer, these demonstrations followed Elrich’s acknowledgment to Blakey that archeologists contracted by the owner recently found, and misplaced, some bones found on the site — what Blakey and other archeological experts called grounds for stopping construction on Parcel 242.

Earlier this month, Elrich told The Informer that the owner of Parcel 242 successfully navigated the construction approval process, which included excavation of the land by a private party. Last week, Montgomery County State’s Attorney John J. McCarthy followed up with a letter affirming that, after a tour of the construction site and conversations with the developer and their archeologists, Parcel 242 has no human remains. Construction company 1784 Capital Holdings, LLC has made similar assertions.

However, proponents of Parcel 242’s preservation characterized the aforementioned statements as part of a deal between Montgomery County, developers, and the owner of Parcel 242 to ignore any signs of human life that would warrant cessation of construction at that site.

Earlier this month, Blakey and other archeological experts examined photos from Parcel 242 that they said alluded to the possibility that construction workers were disturbing a burial ground. The legal document compiled by Coleman-Adebayo and archeologist/cultural property crime expert Dr. Tammy R. Hilburn referenced those photos and gave an account of what researchers saw early on in the construction.

“The contract archaeologist stood idly by, watching the excavator bucket scrape forcefully away at the soils that revealed a possible rectangular area, an obvious archaeological feature, roughly seven feet long, and rich with organic deposits,” a portion of the document read. “The mechanical arm of the excavator bucket lifted up rich soil, possible organic biomass of African American human remains, and spun around only to dump this soil, and any possible bone or osseous fragments, into a pile of other soils from the site of construction: a hateful display of the mechanisms of structural and systemic racism.”

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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