Maryland judge temporarily blocks sale of property atop ancient African-American burial ground

Moses Macedonia African Cemetery in Bethesda, Maryland is the burial site of hundreds of enslaved and formerly enslaved ancestors

Before a Maryland judge intervened, a historic African-American burial ground was at risk of being sold for millions. Now, the sale is temporarily restrained until further deliberation is held on the matter in late September.

Montgomery County Judge Karla Smith on Wednesday issued the temporary restraining order during a hearing for a lawsuit filed by allies and direct descendants of the hundreds of ancestors buried in the historic Moses Macedonia African Cemetery in Bethesda, Maryland.

The lawsuit contested the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission‘s (HOC) $51 million sale of the Westwood Tower Apartments, partially built upon the ancient burial ground.

In the suit, the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition (BACC) claimed that the HOC’s sale is not in compliance with a state law requiring a court judgment to be obtained before a cemetery property can be sold. 

“That law was enacted to ensure the proper dignity and respect is accorded to the remains of people buried on the land,” said Steve Lieberman, a partner at the law firm which filed the suit, who added that buried underneath the property are “hundreds of bodies” including “the bodies of freed slaves and their descendants.” 

“HOC, for whatever reason, chose not to comply to that statute. It has entered into an agreement with a private developer to sell the Moses African Cemetery,” Lieberman said at an August 12 hearing after the lawsuit was filed. “Why did HOC ignore the law? We don’t know that yet.” 

Judge Smith’s order on Wednesday prohibits the sale until September 27 when a preliminary injunction is scheduled to take place on the matter.

In her order, Judge Smith explained that the cemetery was not only comprised of “freed slaves,” but also enslaved individuals “who had worked on one or more of the four plantations in the River Road area of Montgomery County prior to the Civil War.”

Montgomery County Media reported that in the early 1900s, the land by River Road was used for the burial ground but was “sold in the 1950s” to construct the apartment complex. HOC leased the property from 1977 to 2017 when it purchased the property for approximately $20 million.

Councilmember Marc Elrich joins Macedonia Baptist Church congregation and Westbard community to oppose building over the Moses Cemetery, an African American cemetery. pic.twitter.com/AdtA3YRNBN

— Dominique Cahn (@DominiqueCahn) November 12, 2017

Since 2017, community advocates have fought against further developments threatening the displacement of the burial ground.

“Montgomery County is trying to hide this chapter of its history,” BACC President Marsha Coleman-Adebayo told WTOP in July 2020. “This is the definition of white supremacy — a government agency and individuals seek to erase all traces of the existence of Black people.”

Following Wednesday’s ruling, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, Rev. Dr. Segun Adebayo, said in a statement that the restraining order is “another small but crucial first step toward racial justice for the living and the dead in Montgomery County.”

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