Maryland’s highest court weighs protections for historic Black cemetery

Maryland’s highest court weighs protections for historic Black cemetery

Advocates to preserve Moses Macedonia African Cemetery gather outside the Supreme Court building to show support for the historic site following oral arguments on Jan. 8, 2024. (Angelique Gingras/Capital News Service)

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By ANGELIQUE GINGRAS

Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS, Md. – The fight over a historic Black cemetery in Bethesda is now in the hands of the Maryland Supreme Court, as justices weigh the need to preserve a burial ground against the rights of the property owner who wants to sell it.

Legal counsel for the current property owner argued before the court Monday that the mere sale of the property doesn’t threaten the rights of those buried in the cemetery – now covered partly by the paved parking lot of an apartment building.

“The rights of the persons that are buried there are protected,” lawyer Frederick Douglas told the court.

But Steven Lieberman, attorney for advocates for preserving the Moses Macedonia African Cemetery, argued the opposite is true.

“It’s very clear there’s an ongoing desecration every day,” Lieberman argued. “Cars are parking on top of these bodies. It’s not like a normal burial ground where you want to go there and sit on a bench and put flowers or stones on your relatives’ grave.”

The conflict ramped up this week as justices heard the case as one of its first oral arguments of the year. It drew dozens of activists supporting the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition to the state capital, who rallied outside the Supreme Court building with signs that read “Save Moses Cemetery.”

The advocates also took part in an African ritual they called libations, pouring water on the ground and speaking the names of people buried in the cemetery.

The case is part of a larger nationwide movement to preserve Black burial sites that have fallen into disrepair or are being paved over. In Florida, for example, hundreds of graves in once-segregated cemeteries have been unearthed in recent years after they were built over in the mid-20th century, according to the website of the nonprofit Black Cemetery Network.

In the Bethesda instance, the coalition argues the county’s Housing Opportunities Commission, which owns the apartment and parking lot, should not be allowed to sell the property without consulting the courts and the descendents of those buried underneath it. The coalition prevailed in the Montgomery County Circuit Court in 2021, but the Maryland Court of Appeals reversed the decision in 2023.

In an interview with CNS this week, coalition Founder and President Marsha Coleman-Adebayo questioned why the HOC is fighting this case rather than “spending its time, money and resources to provide affordable housing to people in Montgomery County.”

The commission began leasing the Westwood Tower Apartments in 1997 and then acquired it in 2018. In 2021, they entered a contract to sell it to Charger Ventures Bethesda LLC, which has since pulled out of the deal. The commission continued to fight for the right to sell the property, however.

They say their goal is to advance the cause of affordable housing in Montgomery County.

“HOC’s involvement with the Westwood Tower property has been in service of our mission to provide affordable housing to low- and moderate-income residents of Montgomery County and that continues to be our priority moving forward,” commission Executive Director Chelsea Andrews told CNS in a written statement. “HOC acknowledges the significance of the African-American history affiliated with this site and has no plans to disturb the land nor infringe upon the rights of its descendants.”

The Supreme Court of Maryland is expected to make a decision on the case in the coming weeks.

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Capital News Service

aflynn1@umd.edu

Capital News Service is a student-powered news organization run by the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism. With bureaus in Annapolis and Washington run by professional journalists with decades of experience, they deliver news in multiple formats via partner news organizations and a destination Website.

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