Protesters march in Takoma Park on July 10 to condemn construction of a storage facility on the Moses African Cemetery in Bethesda. (Roy Lewis/The Washington Informer)
Protesters march in Takoma Park on July 10 to condemn construction of a storage facility on the Moses African Cemetery in Bethesda. (Roy Lewis/The Washington Informer)

The activists railing against the construction of a storage facility on River Road contend that the situation affirms Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich’s ambivalence toward what’s known as Moses African Cemetery.

Elrich, however, says he has no legal basis to stop an arrangement made between the property owner and the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission for the plot of land that sits outside the official boundaries of Moses African Cemetery and have been proven to not hold human remains.

“All people have to do is look at the plan and see that these are the requirements. You have to have an archeologist, someone who’s competent, to identify human remains and funerary objects,” Elrich said in his description of the process to approve construction on Lots 191 and 242.

“If any bones are found, the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission needs to be notified immediately,” he said. “The owners contracted with the archeological team that has done hundreds of exhumations and have the expertise. They met the qualifications that [the commission] put on the piece of paper and told them what they can do.”

Immediately after his 2018 election win, Elrich said he would work with BACC, the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission, and the Housing Opportunities Commission to reach a solution of equal benefit to the county and descendent community.

He recently told The Informer that the latest of those meetings took place in the months leading to the coronavirus pandemic. Even though plans had been put in place to further facilitate dialogue between BACC and the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission about Lot 177, there had been concerns that the latter appeared unwilling to include the descendent community in its plans.

“In our discussions with Marsha [Coleman-Adebayo, Macedonia Baptist Church’s social justice coordinator] and Parks and Planning, we agreed that Lots 175 and 177 represented the cemetery,” Elrich said.

Elrich later expressed plans to coordinate a meeting this week with Dr. Michael Blakey, a renowned archeologist supporting BACC, and the archeological team commissioned by the property owner, to scrutinize the archeological team’s methodology and determine the need for retesting Lots 191 and 242.

“Montgomery County was a slave county and there are nowhere near the amount of African gravesites that would account for centuries of slavery. That’s why Parks and Planning was required [to excavate] the corner closest to the cemetery in their zoning approval,” Elrich said.

Earlier this week, Kelly McKone of 1784 Capital Holdings, the company spearheading the construction of the storage unit, issued a statement decrying BACC’s protest and affirming that their project isn’t affecting the land designated as Moses African Cemetery.

Days earlier, BACC members and 1784 Capital Holdings clashed at the River Road construction site in the latest chapter of BACC’s battle to memorialize Moses African Cemetery, a fight that started in 2016.

In the infancy of their campaign to stop development atop the burial ground, the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission acquired Lots 177, 191, and 242, while Lot 175 fell under the purview of the Housing and Opportunities Commission. That’s when BACC’s efforts shifted to pressuring HOC and Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning to relinquish the site to Macedonia Baptist Church, River Road’s last bastion of Black history.

County documents designate tax parcels 175 and 177, located between River Road and Westbard Avenue, as the Moses African Cemetery. Records show the burial ground being in existence since the early 1900s when White’s Tabernacle, a displaced Black church and cemetery from Tenlytown in Northwest, purchased the land, which county records at the time have labeled as Lot 177.

Over the next few decades, county officials divided that portion of land into Lots 175 and 177. It also became the site of county infrastructure projects, namely the Willet Branch Trunk Sewer in 1930 and the Willet Branch Storm Drain in the early 1960s.

By the second half of the 20th century, as gentrification pushed members of River Road’s Black community into the District and other parts of Montgomery County, the Moses African Cemetery once again came into the spotlight with the construction of the nearby Westwood Tower Apartments.

A 2018 report by David S. Rotenstein painted the construction of Westwood Towers Apartments in the context of urban renewal projects across the region that razed Black communities and historic landmarks. In that document, former members of the River Road descendent community, including BACC-affiliate Harvey Matthews, spoke about grave markers he and friends saw while playing in the area designated as Moses African Cemetery.

Since construction started last month, BACC members and other memorialization advocates, citing photos from the site, say that human remains most likely exist below the space in question. They have contested any notion that an archeological team conducted adequate testing, and have since led protests at different points along River Road, including near Moses African Cemetery.

BACC’s crusade against the Montgomery County government recently brought them to Elrich’s home in Takoma Park, Maryland. During that protest, BACC members and supporters donning masks weathered the heavy humidity to wave signs, chant, and chalk “Black Lives Matter” into the concrete outside of Elrich’s garage.

This event, which included the display of a hearst, followed protests at Macedonia Baptist Church and near the River Road McDonald’s parking lot.

In his address to fellow protesters on July 9, Segun Adebayo, pastor of Macedonia Baptist Church, provided an international perspective as he reflected on a West African upbringing that brought him close to his ancestors.

“We have to band together and say that this will not be tolerated,” Adebayo said. “We fight them with every breath we have and let them know enough is enough.

“I’m from Africa and the worst thing you can do to a people is desecrate the graves of their ancestors,” he said. “There’s no difference between the living and the ancestors [so] we have to venerate, remember, and celebrate them.”

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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