The crusade to prevent the desecration of Moses African Cemetery on River Road in Bethesda, Maryland, has sparked widespread conversation about Montgomery County’s rich Black history, particularly that involving the formerly enslaved Africans who developed the River Road, Tobytown and Scotland communities.
In recent months, dialogue around honoring Montgomery County’s Black past continued at the American University (AU) Museum at the Katzen Arts Center in Northwest, where visitors on the second floor perused a collection of photos, videos and artifacts on display at an exhibit touted as “Plans to Prosper You: Reflections of Black Resistance and Resilience in Montgomery County’s Potomac River Valley.”
“Plans to Prosper You,” wrapping up Sunday, represents the collaborative efforts of the “Craft of Anthology” graduate-level anthropology course at AU and communities represented in the exhibit, including the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition (BACC). This relationship started last August when 10 doctoral students conducted original research about the River Road community, including Macedonia Baptist Church, the last bastion of Black history on that corridor.
“A lot of our research came from regular Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition meetings and speaking at length with [Macedonia Baptist Church social justice coordinator] Marsha Coleman-Adebayo,” said Delande Justinvil, an anthropology doctoral student and curator of “Plans to Prosper You.”
“We tried our best to get an inside perspective on the struggles of the community,” he continued. “BACC has been fighting since 2015. It’s why development [on the burial ground] hasn’t happened. This is the same level of tenacity that needs to be applied to all forms of Black history preservation.”
For nearly two years, BACC, comprised primarily of Macedonia Baptist Church congregants, have attended and provided comment, at monthly Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC) meetings in Kensington, Maryland to gain clarity around the affordable housing provider’s plans for Moses African Cemetery. Toward the end of 2017, during BACC’s initial protest against a private developer gearing up to construct a parking garage on the property, HOC purchased the burial site without explanation.
Not long after his election last year, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich pledged to mitigate the ongoing dispute between BACC and HOC. By February, HOC officials announced they would include the Maryland-National Capital Parks & Planning Commission in discussions about Moses African Cemetery, much to the chagrin of BACC members.
More recently, Elrich, in response to a question about a slowdown in negotiations earlier this summer, said Macedonia Baptist Church members didn’t provide input on a proposed garage entrance on the property can be configured to allow for memorialization. He also said that he couldn’t sacrifice the affordable housing stock to meet BACC’s needs.
In late June, the Rev. Segun Adebayo of Macedonia penned an open letter to Elrich that appeared in The Informer, attempting to set the record straight and question whether Elrich had genuine interest in memorializing River Road’s Black ancestors. A month later, an article by Coleman-Adebayo that appeared on the Black Agenda Report framed their fight as that against centuries of injustice starting with the rape and murder of enslaved Africans along River Road.
Moses African Cemetery, located less than a mile from Macedonia Baptist Church behind Westwood Towers, has been estimated to house the remains of nearly 500 people, many of whom have been speculated to live sometime between the 1860s and 1950s, when gentrification pushed Black people out of River Road in droves.
Since the July 14 exhibit launch, a bevy of religious organizations, clergy people, activists and academicians have weighed in on issues related to Black historical preservation as part of a speaker’s series at the American University Museum. An interfaith dialogue on Saturday afternoon featured BACC member Sara Ehrlich, Caitlin Magidson of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and Hamza Khan, all of whom engaged the Rev. Graylan Hagler and audience members in conversation about the fight against oppression in religious communities.
“Disrespect to the body is a crime against God — that’s an Islamic belief,” Khan said Saturday. “An argument has been made that we don’t know if people are [buried at Moses African Cemetery], but we’re quite aware that people had to bury [loved ones] without a permit. It makes no sense that an argument persists that we can’t honor the dead. The right of the dead should not be questioned.”