Call to halt Bethesda construction atop historic African cemetery

Local religious leaders are calling for a moratorium on construction of a self-storage facility at a site along River Road, in Bethesda, Maryland, which is a historic burial ground of freed enslaved Africans.

“Our goal for the last three years now has been to stop the desecration of this sacred spot,” said Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, president of the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition. Muslim and Jewish leaders held a news conference outside Macedonia Baptist Church, across River Road from the site.

The property, owned by Bethesda Self Storage at 5204 River Road, is next to Montgomery County’s Housing Opportunities Commission, and is a parking area for the Westwood Towers apartments.

moses cemetery construction
The Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition is calling for a halt to construction on River Road, atop a historic African cemetery. (Photo Gail Rebhan)

The group is asking the county to place a building moratorium on Bethesda Self Storage to allow anthropologist Dr. Michael Blakey to lead a forensic analysis of Moses Cemetery.

“Moses Cemetery, before the Civil War, is where the quote-unquote ‘plantation owners’ would dump their African bodies,” Coleman-Adebayo said. “We called them death camps, since up and down River Road there were actually three major plantations.”

After viewing recent photos of the ongoing construction, Blakey said they show “fragments of light-colored elongated material consistent with skeletal material, but is not currently verifiable as such. Also, a suspicious flagged area of possibly organically rich soil (a unique area of vegetation is growing there) recently covered with gravel could represent a burial.”

Coleman-Adebayo said in a 2017 assessment that researchers determined the area had been used as burial grounds, but the number of people buried in Moses Cemetery was unclear.

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

A spokesperson for Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich was seeking comment from the executive.

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