Protests near the construction of a storage facility on River Road in Bethesda, Maryland have, once again, brought attention to the burial site that members of the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition (BACC) said holds the remains of descendants of the historically Black River Road community, including enslaved Africans.
As BACC continues its fight for a moratorium on construction and an independent archeological investigation, a group of families who say they are the cemetery’s real descendent community decries what they described as an inaccurate narrative of the cemetery’s origins and location.
“I just heard the news [from my sister], and our family had a meeting,” said Austin E. White, a descendent of the Morningstar Tabernacle No. 88 Lodge of the Order of Moses, located in the historic African-American community of Gibson Grove, located along Seven Locks Road in Bethesda.
White and other Morningstar descendants penned an open letter to BACC on Aug. 10 claiming a connection to Parcels 175 and 177 — what they referred to as the former name of White’s Tabernacle No. 38.
In their open letter, 17 members of the Morningstar descendent community said two of their ancestors — Charles H. Brown and George Frye — also had membership in White’s Tabernacle. They would later count among the more than 100 additional people interred at White’s Tabernacle No. 38 after its transfer from Tenleytown in Northwest to River Road.
Decades prior to the Morningstar-White’s Tabernacle connection, 10 families of the Gibson Grove community purchased land from a white family and established the Morningstar Tabernacle as a benevolent society that buried tabernacle members and took care of their orphaned children.
The accompanying Morningstar Moses Cemetery, also located along Seven Locks Road, served as the final resting place of more than 70 Morningstar Tabernacle ancestors, all of whom paid membership dues while alive.
Though Macedonia Baptist Church, a BACC affiliate to which organizers want the burial ground ceded, moved near White’s Tabernacle in the 1930s before transitioning across the street, descendants of the Morningstar Tabernacle contend that the church can’t claim the property because lack of membership in White’s Tabernacle would’ve prevented the burial of Macedonia members.
“I didn’t know that Macedonia would be involved in White’s Tabernacle No. 38,” White said. told The Informer without disclosing when or from whom his sister heard about BACC’s campaign.
“I didn’t even hear anything about Macedonia being involved. I thought they were separate. I knew about Macedonia, and I knew some people in Macedonia, but I didn’t know they had a cemetery.”
Points of Contention
The Morningstar Tabernacle descendent community’s challenge to BACC comes amid the threat of development on their burial grounds, and BACC’s continuous efforts to determine whether parcels 191 and 242 on River Road has the remains of enslaved Africans.
These plots of land, though located near the official burial grounds, haven’t been officially designated as such. An archaeological team contracted by construction company 1784 Capital Holdings said no sign of human life exists on the site, but concerns exist among BACC members about collusion between developers, county officials, and archeologists.
Such concerns heightened with the self-storage company’s refusal to allow an independent excavation. In the days preceding that news, a consultant for 1784 Capital Holdings whose research background includes the Morningstar Tabernacle community, has argued that BACC should focus its attention on another parcel of land.
“There needs to be a memorial about the Order, [but] that’s not the argument,” said Jones who recounted discovering Morningstar Tabernacle’s connection with White’s Tabernacle last year while going through archival records.
“The land that [BACC] is protesting on is not the cemetery land,” Jones added. “It’s been repeated multiple times that it’s the two parcels of land, and people should look to the west. All of us have reviewed the same thing and came back to the same conclusion.”
Four Years of Organizing
Over the last four years, BACC has organized and advocated before the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission, Montgomery County Council, and Planning Board for the memorialization of Moses African Cemetery and its cession to Macedonia Baptist Church, considered the last bastion of Black history on River Road.
In the 19th century, during the period of U.S. chattel slavery, bodies of enslaved Africans were thrown into a swampy area near plantations along River Road. Decades later, emancipated Africans later bought land along River Road, which their descendants would lose during a period of gentrification throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
Last year, in the months leading up to Macedonia Baptist Church’s centennial, an exhibit at American University’s Katzen Arts Center in Northwest featured River Road and other historically Black communities in Montgomery County.
Months later, just before COVID-19 brought economic and social activity to a standstill, discussions between BACC, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, and the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission about memorialization were reportedly about to start, though Elrich told The Informer earlier this year that all parties involved have differing views on what stalled discussions.
Throughout much of the summer, since construction of the self-storage facility started, members of Macedonia Baptist Church, have spent much of the summer protesting construction of a self-storage facility out of a belief that the areas beyond parcels 175 and 177 also count as the burial ground.
During their campaign, BACC members said they’ve attempted to contact the member churches under the umbrella of the Black Ministers Conference of Montgomery County, but have been unsuccessful. Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, social justice coordinator for Macedonia, also recalled collecting contact information from an untold number of people, including Jones who she said could’ve alerted BACC to the concerns of the Morningstar Tabernacle community years earlier.
In the days following the release of the Aug. 10 letter, BACC countered an assertion that Moses African Cemetery isn’t the real name of the burial site. In their appeal for collaboration, BACC also questioned how the descendent community could have just found out about their connection to plots 175 and 177 if Jones had been studying the area for more than a decade.
“People who came to our exhibit at American University see that we have been very inclusive. We talk about Scotland, Tobytown, [and] the River Valley. We have this sister from the Kingar community,” said Coleman-Adebayo.
“When American University first came to us, we tried to get all of the Black communities involved,” she continued.
“No one ever said anything to us about the Cabin John [Gibson Grove] community. We’ve been fighting these [developers] for four years. Why didn’t you contact us before putting out an open letter. Why not just call us and say what you want to say?”