A coalition representing descendants of freed enslaved people buried in a sacred African cemetery in Bethesda has sued the Montgomery County Housing Opportunity Commission, claiming the agency’s imminent sale of the land to a developer violates the law.
Judicial input must first be considered before the sale is approved, a lawyer representing the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition said Tuesday, announcing the lawsuit.
“There is no dispute that that property includes hundreds of bodies, the bodies of freed slaves and their descendants,” said Steve Lieberman, a partner at Rothwell Figg, the law firm representing the suit. “The owner of the property must obtain the permission of this court … to proceed with that sale. That law was enacted to ensure the proper dignity and respect is accorded to the remains of people buried on the land.”
Lieberman said a court can deny the permission, grant the permission or grant the permission if only the seller and the buyer agree to certain conditions.
“HOC, for whatever reason, chose not to comply to that statute,” Lieberman said before a crowd at the Montgomery County Circuit Court on Thursday. “It has entered into an agreement with a private developer to sell the Moses African Cemetery.”
“Why did HOC ignore the law, we don’t know that yet,” Lieberman added.
The property, which is on a hill west of River Road in Bethesda, is currently used as a parking lot, developed in the 1960s, Lieberman said.
For several years, Montgomery County and developers have tried to build a parking garage and self-storage facility on the burial grounds. Those hoping to stop such efforts filed a lawsuit this week.
“The bodies — at least those not dug and carted away or discarded during the construction of the parking lot and a building — are still there, buried under the parking lot. Everyday people park their cars on top of those bodies. None of that is in dispute, nor is it in dispute the property was used as a burial ground,” the attorney said.
Tax assessments and burial records indicate the existence of the cemetery, but developers, residents and advocates have disagreed on its boundaries.
HOC announced that it expects to complete the sale of the land to developer Charger Ventures within a month.
The agency says it has “no comment at this time” on the lawsuit.
Community advocates have been fighting against the sale of the property for nearly four years, a pastor of Macedonia Baptist Church said at the lawsuit announcement.