A Fight in a D.C. Suburb to Stop Black History from Being Repeatedly Paved Over:
In a Time of Desecrated Black and Indigenous Bones Across North America, a Buried Black Cemetery in Montgomery County, Md. Continues to Meet White Indifference
By Nkechi Taifa
If there are two truths I know well, they are these: first, history doesn’t have a statue of limitations and second, bearing witness creates its own eventual energy. When I look at the determination of Marsha Coleman-Adebayo and others to ensure that a bulldozed Black cemetery is remembered and eventually preserved, those maxims come to the front of my mind.
A group she coordinates was out picketing Monday in Montgomery County, an affluent community created by stealing land from those of African descent. Before that, they were out last week. Before that….and that’s how that goes. The activists of the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition, led by Coleman-Adebayo, have lost several battles to resurrect and preserve the River Road Moses Cemetery and feel betrayed by their county’s leadership, but they are resolute.
“Montgomery County has continued its horrific history of selling Black bodies to white institutions. First it was white plantations; now its white developers,” Coleman-Adebayo said in a statement. “The county has become addicted to Black blood and it doesn’t seem to matter whether the blood is from the dead or the living. Black people and their ancestors are back on the auction block.”
There is a serious hill to climb to reach as-yet-unseen bones that are, paradoxically, deep under- ground. The 2021 Maryland House bill that would have created a Historic African American Cemeteries Preservation Fund to, in the words of the proposed legislation, “identify, preserve, restore, protect, maintain, or commemorate graves, monuments, or markers at historic African American cemeteries” in the state, died in committee this past spring. The Montgomery County Planning Board, the county’s Housing Opportunities Commission and County Executive Marc Elrich want to sell the historic Bethesda property, currently a paved-over parking lot on River Road, to Charger Ventures, who wants to build an apartment complex — right on top. Last week’s coalition protest was outside the home of Jessie Henry, the founder and CEO of the company.
Elrich is being challenged next year by Montgomery County President Tom Hucker, a fellow Democrat, but it is unknown if the incumbent’s ouster will help this cause because of the collective indifference of the county’s elected officials.
It’s easy to be apathetic if the alternative is to confront a painful and shameful history. Coleman-Adebayo, following the advice of many activists to be their own media, wrote many articles on the issue for Black Agenda Report, a Black Leftist opinion journalism platform, in 2017. Here’s a sample from one: “The River Road African community thrived in Bethesda for nearly 60 years, until the 1950s when developers colluded with Montgomery County to disenfranchise and pillage this community. From circa 1955 to 1960 the Bethesda African community was under assault.”
Harvey Matthews, a Black man whose family had owned land in the county until it was taken, is a mainstay in Coleman-Adebayo’s BAR articles and at the demonstrations over the years.
“The acre of land Harvey Matthews’s family owned,” she wrote, “would be worth over $20 million today. Whole Foods — that proudly displays its support of projects in underdeveloped countries — now thrives where the Matthews’s home and farm once stood.”
If there was ever a case to examine for reparations, it’s in Montgomery County and should start with that buried cemetery and people like Matthews.
Sadly, this is the D.C. metropolitan area that I’m familiar with: I’m still learning about how much Black land was stolen by whites to create the region I’ve lived in and loved my entire life. Like in Maryland’s Jim Crow days, the county’s (non-)actions are not moral.
Ms. Henry’s Charger Ventures must immediately withdraw its purchase offer of the historic Moses Cemetery. There must be no construction over Black bones! In essence, I agree with Coleman-Adebayo: the D.C. suburb “is engaged in a morally reprehensible act, reminiscent of the slavery that took place throughout the county, of selling Black bodies to the highest white bidder.” With all that has taken place this summer in North America concerning the bones of non-Europeans, some bones should remain untouched — or at least naturally buried, not continually tread over by capitalistic feet.
Nkechi Taifa is an attorney, activist, scholar and author of the bestseller memoir, Black Power, Black Lawyer: My Audacious Quest for Justice