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Protesters Decry Construction on Hallowed African Burial Site

Construction of a self-storage facility on an African burial site has intensified the longtime struggle to preserve and memorialize that large plot of land, which the River Road community, as early as the 1900s, designated as Moses African Cemetery, the final resting place for many of its Black residents.

A key element of this endeavor currently involves archeologists such as Dr. Michael Blakey, who said, given the area where the excavation took place, disturbance of a burial site is likely. Days before meeting with Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D), Blakey said he saw photos taken of Moses African Cemetery that alluded to this possibility.

“There needs to be an archeological examination of the soil as they proceed and that needs to be reported regularly to the descendent community and others who can be assured, [given] all the reasonable distrust, on a daily or weekly basis that there are no remains,” said Blakey, an archeologist perhaps best known for showing the effects of chattel slavery in New York City.

In the early 2000s, after Congress stopped the excavation of the Lower Manhattan burial site, Blakey’s discovery of African skeletal remains on the federal land supported the creation of New York City’s African Burial Ground U.S. National Monument. While drawing parallels between that project and Moses African Cemetery, Blakey said that New York City officials too pushed on with development despite cries from residents to do otherwise.

“If there are human remains, [Montgomery County] should be in a position to halt construction,” Blakey continued, saying that he and Elrich didn’t discuss specific plans about the archeologist’s involvement. “The bottom line is that there hasn’t been a careful assessment of the possibility that human remains would be disturbed by the construction, and there has not been subsequent monitoring of the soil.”

On Monday, Blakey counted among several voices who called for a moratorium on construction during BACC’s interfaith press conference and protest at Moses African Cemetery, located behind the parking lot of a McDonald’s franchise on River Road in Bethesda.

Other speakers and presenters that morning — including Ayanna Gregory, the Council of American-Islamic Relations, and Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld — publicly appealed to Elrich and Montgomery County officials to cede control of the site to Macedonia Baptist Church, another bastion of Black history on River Road.

Participants lined up along River Road near the McDonalds, towing signs, reciting chants, and blocking entry into the cross street below a bridge marking the Capital Crescent Trail. Officers from the Montgomery County Police Department (MCPD) descended on the scene when two BACC-affiliated protesters attempted to enter the construction site, which by that time had been blocked by a gate.

Even as MCPD vehicles blocked the portion of River Road where the protest occurred, protesters continued to take to the bullhorn and express their displeasure toward Elrich, who some have accused of showing partiality toward the construction crews.

Though the county executive, shortly after winning election in the fall of 2018, indicated some desire to quickly and openly find a solution to the burial site quandary, memorialization advocates said he’s acted slowly to elevate the River Road descendent community’s concerns about the endangerment of what’s estimated to be the remains of more than 200 people.

Much to their chagrin, BACC members received a letter on June 17 from Elrich noting that an archeological consultant hired by the property owner denied the presence of human remains. That communique incited cries of multimillion-dollar collusion between Montgomery County, the property owner, and developers.

It also led to protests at Moses African Cemetery in the three days leading up to the July Fourth weekend. Those organized gatherings followed others at the burial site and nearby Macedonia in solidarity with the legions of people across the United States speaking out against racialized police brutality.

These acts of civil disobedience have brought about an opportunity to educate various audiences about Moses African Cemetery. Most recently, the 400 Years of African American History Coalition recognized BACC and provided funding for the creation of a pop-up tabletop exhibit. Members counted the exhibit as part of larger plans to build a museum about slavery in the United States.

On numerous occasions, BACC members, particularly Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo of Macedonia Baptist Church, have referenced the untold number of people who lost their lives along River Road, including young African women who were raped to breed future generations of labor.

Gregory, a renowned singer and activist, followed in that tradition Monday by evoking the name of her late father Dick Gregory and other well-regarded African ancestors while pouring libations.

Onlookers rose their fists in solidarity and yelled “Ase!” in intervals while Gregory spoke about the greater implications of BACC’s battle with the Montgomery County government.

“They are intimidated by our light and truth. Victory is inevitable,” Gregory said.

“This is not a revolution of Black versus white, but right against wrong,” she continued. “In the spirit world, right does not lose. Rights, justice and liberation are our birthright. We recognize that white supremacy is falling on its head and destroying itself. We are the ones we’re looking for. We are the light.”

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