Over 200 bones unearthed and withheld from descendants of a historic Black cemetery
BACC President Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo speaks with Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., next to the African burial site where a self-storage facility is being constructed. | Photo courtesy of Gail Rebhan

BETHESDA, Md.—In a predominantly white and affluent suburb of Washington, D.C., the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition (BACC) is carrying on in the struggle to stop the desecration of Moses Macedonia African Cemetery. After more than six years of defeats and victories both on the streets and in the courtroom, they aren’t giving up yet.

At the heart of their struggle is a fight to defend a piece of land that many believe to be among the largest mass graves in the United States. BACC has been working to block the desecration of what it says is the final resting place of many among the first generation of free Black people in the U.S., as well as their enslaved ancestors.

A real estate development company called 1784 Capital Holdings acquired 1.5 acres of the land in 2017. On the site, which previously housed an auto body shop, the company announced it would build a self-storage facility. The plan was approved by the Montgomery County Planning Board in December of that year.

The area around has been heavily gentrified in decades prior; a portion of the cemetery was already paved over (and subsequently desecrated) during the development of high rises and other buildings in the 1960s. Historical documentation suggests that the remaining burial site is located where an adjacent apartment building and parking lot currently stand, with part of the cemetery extending onto 1784’s purchased land.

Two of the burnt bone fragments found at the site. | Photo via Towson University

The company says the area where it is constructing the self-storage facility was not part of the burial grounds and says it voluntarily gave a section of land back to the county after acknowledging it had been part of the cemetery. Opponents say the burial area was much bigger than the company admits.

BACC’s president, Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, calls the broader issue of the desecration of Black cemeteries “an act done by and in service of white supremacy meant to erase and cover up its own crimes.” She argues that “white supremacists find comfort in fighting those who cannot fight back.”

Recently, archaeologists uncovered over 200 bones from parcels of land involved in the development and have retained them in a warehouse across the state line in Gainesville, Va.

Emails obtained via Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) by BACC members uncovered communications between forensic anthropologist Dana Kollmann of Towson University and the developer’s contract archaeologist, Thunderbird Archaeology.

In reference to a photo of bone fragments found on site, Kollmann wrote, “I could not identify those fragments as conclusively being non‐human. I think a first step would be to have a DNA analyst examine them to see if they believe they are suitable for DNA.”

In response to these emails, Coleman-Adebayo stated, “The county seems completely uninterested in why these bones would be burnt. Were they burnt when the KKK was harassing the Black community, or were these bones burnt recently by the only people who had access to them?” Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich has not responded to requests for comment.

Descendant Harvey Matthews speaking at a press conference after the Appellate Court hearing on the sale of Moses Cemetery by HOC. | Photo courtesy of Gail Rebhan

A week after the news broke about bones being found on the site, the Appellate Court of Maryland released an opinion overturning a prior ruling which stopped the sale of a portion of the cemetery owned by the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC).

A press release by Rothwell Figg, the law firm representing BACC, quoted attorney Steve Lieberman as saying, “If this ruling is permitted to stand, it is open season on traditional African-American burial grounds in Maryland. None of the graves in such burial grounds will be safe.”

Asked about the implications of this opinion on his work, bio-archaeologist and African American burial specialist Dr. Michael Blakey said, “The court case to which you refer, as I recall, does not require descendant consultation or approval for the relocation of human remains. If so, it would be an ethically inappropriate position, and archaeologists should not participate in its terms.”

In response to these events, BACC has appealed to both the courts and elected representatives. BACC’s attorneys recently filed a petition with the Supreme Court of Maryland, along with amicus briefs by local religious leaders and the Education Rights Center of Howard University Law School, asking Maryland’s top judges to hear their case against HOC’s right to sell the land. HOC’s lawyers have submitted an answer in opposition to the petition.

Coalition members have also reached out to County Executive Elrich, Rep. Jamie Raskin, and Sen. Chris Van Hollen to facilitate the return of bones to the descendant community by transferring them to the Institute for Historical Biology at the College of William & Mary for examination by Blakey.

The site of the self-storage development where over 200 bones were found. | Photo courtesy of Gail Rebhan

Concerning what will be done with the remains if they’re transferred, Blakey said, “We will curate these securely until a decision is made to have expert human skeletal biologists like ourselves identify their species by a transparent process.” He declared that “the decision to prevent a transparent process so far has been unnecessarily harmful to the Black community in Bethesda.”

Raskin and Van Hollen—both Maryland Democrats—did not respond to requests for comment.

To date, no results of DNA analysis have been announced, and Thunderbird Archaeology’s official monitoring reports label all bones as “faunal” or non-human. BACC wants a second opinion.

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Krista Chan
Krista Chan

Krista Chan resides in Oakland, California, where she is a member of the Nitty Gritty Club.