Saturday, March 4, 2023

Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition to hold protest Sunday, March 5

The Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition will hold a protest tomorrow, Sunday, March 5, 2023, from 2:00 - 4:00 PM by the McDonald's at 5214 River Road in Bethesda. This protest regards the ongoing desecration of the Moses African Cemetery, which is located partly on land southeast of the retaining wall behind McDonald's, and mostly on the Westwood Tower property above it on Westbard Avenue. While the larger issue of the hidden cemetery has been an ongoing controversy with the Montgomery County government and the descendant community since it was located in 2014, one of the more recent boiling points has been the construction of a self-storage building directly behind the McDonald's.

While the self-storage building's footprint is not within the cemetery boundaries as defined by property records, a frequent issue found in the study of African-American cemeteries has been mistaken burials of remains just beyond the boundary lines of a cemetery, if no physical fencing was present. That potential to find human remains on the site of the self-storage building construction was raised by cemetery advocates during the approval process, but was dismissed by the Montgomery County Planning Board and County Council.

Montgomery County government and its related agencies - Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission, Montgomery Parks, and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission - have moved with vigor to prevent any archaeological study of the cemetery since the controversy moved into their purview during the Westbard sector plan process of 2014-2016. Montgomery County blocked the descendant community's effort to bring in Dr. Michael Blakey, a highly-regarded professor of anthropology and American studies at the College of William & Mary, to conduct forensic studies of the cemetery site. HOC denied all study attempts on the Westwood Tower property it owns, and Montgomery County quickly reached a deal with the owner of the self-storage property to sell the parcel of the cemetery on that land to the County. The landowner had expressed willingness to let archaeological work be performed on that parcel; as new owner, the County did not.

As the self-storage project has creeped forward in fits and starts over several years, the project's developer and the BACC have repeatedly tangled - in words, and in-person during protests at the construction site - over the potential location of human remains. BACC observers have claimed to have seen bone fragments and funerary objects removed from the site. The self-storage developer has denied this, and its hired archaeological expert has stated no such remains or objects have been located on the self-storage site.

But the BACC says Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich was aware of bone fragments being found, and that Elrich accepted the developer's expert's opinion that the bones were not human remains. When Dr. Blakey asked Elrich if he could examine the bone fragments with his own expertise, he was allegedly told that the bone fragments were now missing. Blakey recounted this conversation, and his frustrating experience of being stonewalled by Montgomery County in his efforts to assist the descendant community, in an interview released by the BACC:

"I remember a very patronizing attitude on the part of Parks and Planning," Blakey recalled. "We got ultimately nowhere with our scope-of-work to the public engagement. And the County essentially turned its back on the recommendation that it should proceed on a scientific basis to reveal whether or not remains were throughout the area. I was contacted by the County Executive Marc Elrich. We had, perhaps, at least two telephone conversations. At some point, I had advised with the community that at least the monitoring during construction, that the archaeological monitoring be intensified. It was so weak, so lackadaisical, so few hours were devoted to it, that it was one of these examples of checking off the box. It was not serious.

"Marc Elrich and I talked, and he told me that human remains had been, I'm sorry, that remains had been found on the site. And they had been sent to a laboratory somewhere. And they were discovered not to be by those who were doing the assessment. And I assumed they were people with the kind of expertise I have as a bioarchaeologist, or they may have been forensic anthropologists, to identify human bone from bone fragments.

"I did not necessarily trust the situation myself at that point. I'd like to see! And so I asked Mr. Elrich if I could observe and examine those remains, and in so doing, my assessment might be trusted. And at some point along in the conversation - I think he was going to go back - and then we had a second conversation, as I roughly recall.

"They were not sure, his understanding was, that the archaeologists nor he were sure of where the remains were. And that's suspicious.

"I was not afforded the permission to those bone fragments. The question is, 'What are you hiding? What are you afraid of?' The way to allay distrust is transparency. Complete, utter transparency. There's no reason not to have that in a trustworthy situation. And so one would think [this] situation not trustworthy.

"The treatment of the descendant community in Bethesda was equivalent to calling them the N-word. Racism is about so many kinds of degradations, of exclusion, and 'white hoarding,' as someone put it, of things that don't belong to them. And maybe in this case, in the case of Moses Cemetery, the term 'dismissal' is appropriate. The Black community's humane interests were just dismissed.

"Why should African-Americans and their allies concerned about this most human of concerns - as an anthropologist, I can tell you, the treatment of the dead, the burial of the dead, funerary stewardship, is a deeply human need - why should they be protesting out in a McDonald's parking lot, outside a construction fence, when the parameters of the cemetery can be known? When it's possible - let's just take the example of my [potential] examination of the skeletal remains -  they can be assured of whether those are, or are not, human remains that have been uncovered?

"Their sensibility as human beings has been dismissed. That's what you do to an N-word. That is the N-word in action," Blakey concluded.

Speakers at Sunday's protest will include BACC President Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo and BACC members Josh Silvers, Krista Chan and Dr. Karen Wilson Ama'Echeful; Dr. (Rev) Julianne Robertson, Assistant Pastor, Allen Chapel, AME Church; Dr. (Rev) Segun Adebayo, Pastor, Macedonia Baptist Church (the Bethesda church that is the last physical remnant of the lost Black community on River Road that existed from the end of the Civil War until the 1960s); poet and activist Robert Stubblefield of the Democratic Socialists of America; Paul Pumphrey of the Black Alliance for Peace; Denise Young from WPFW 89.3 FM; and Baba Mosi Matsimela, President, UNIA-ACL Division 330.

Organizations joining the BACC in solidarity at the event will be the Maryland Poor People's Campaign, the Claudia Jones School for Political Education, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, and the Montgomery County Green Party.

Free ice cream from Ben & Jerry's in Silver Spring will be served at Sunday's protest.


  1. They found the remains of King Richard III under a parking lot in England last year.Sometimes you gots to roll wit h the punches.

  2. That was ten years ago.