An asphalt-paved parking lot in Washington D.C. is at the heart of a development dispute due to a cemetery below it where hundreds of bodies of freed slaves and their descendants lie.
Local community members in Montgomery County, MD say the bodies are buried in what was once a cemetery in the early 20th century. The cemetery is one of the last remnants of a historic Black neighborhood in Bethesda.
“These are people who were so oppressed and so discarded and so disrespected in life, and now, even in death, they meet the same fate,” Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, president of the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition told NBC News.
The coalition members are now trying to preserve what is known as the Moses African Cemetery, filing a lawsuit seeking to block the county’s $50 million sale of an apartment complex property to Charger Ventures investment firm. The suit alleges Montgomery County’s Housing Opportunities Commission violated state law by failing to get court approval for the sale of the property, which is required when a cemetery is involved.
The coalition won a small victory earlier this month when a Montgomery County judge issued a temporary restraining order blocking the sale of the property until a second hearing is scheduled for Monday. The judge will then decide whether to grant an injunction blocking the sale or allow it to go forward.
During the hearing earlier this month, Coalition attorney Steven Lieberman told the judge he believes a developer could end up exploiting the site.
The issue in Montgomery County, a majority White and one of the wealthiest counties in the country, is one of many happening across the U.S. Earlier this summer, a similar battle took place in Tulsa, OK when archaeologists and city officials tried to reenter bodies it had exhumed from an underground cemetery to collect DNA evidence. In New Jersey, a new database is mapping and cataloging numerous African American burial sites containing prominent figures and regular folks, freed and enslaved peoples.
Many of these sites are endangered due to several factors including a lack of historical record-keeping, political will power to save them and even climate change Lynn Rainville, an anthropologist and director of institutional history and the museums at Washington and Lee University told NBC.
The one acre parcel was bought by the chapter of a Black fraternal society in 1911. According to historical records, the chapter operated a cemetery which has about 200 graves. Many of the sites were freed slaves who worked the tobacco plantations and farms in the area before the Civil War. Black families in the area were squeezed out in the late 1950s and the chapter sold the land in 1968.