Protests erupt at the destruction of Moses African Cemetery in Bethesda, MD.

Protests erupt at the destruction of Moses African Cemetery in Bethesda, MD.

The nation is changing as it confronts historical issues with race. Across the country, monuments to slave owners and racists are coming down, in an attempt to rewrite history from a more equitable and honest vantage point. This rewriting of history is happening in Bethesda.

Activists from the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition are fighting to protect the Moses African Cemetery from destruction. In Bethesda, a self-storage facility is under construction on top of what local historians say is a burial ground and mass grave for formerly enslaved Africans. This confrontation has raised conversations about our region’s history and who writes it.

We’ll uncover the significance of the Moses African Cemetery and what it adds to our region’s history.

Produced by Richard Cunningham


  • Marsha Coleman-Adebayo President, Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition; Former Senior Policy Analyst, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); @nofearcoalition; @BethAfrCemetery
  • Kristina Gaddy Baltimore-based writer and author


  • 12:00:03

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast we discuss the new institute at the University of the District of Columbia focused on the study and elimination of white supremacy. But first, the nation is changing before our eyes as it struggles with its long history of systemic racism. Across the country monuments dedicated to slave owners and racists are coming down as people begin to think about who we choose to remember and why.

  • 12:00:29

    KOJO NNAMDIAlso across the nation people are fighting to preserve and memorialize the burial grounds of former slaves. This includes Moses African Cemetery in Bethesda where local advocates are fighting to save it from destruction. Today we uncover the history of the cemetery and what it means for our region's history. Joining me now is Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, the President of the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:00:56

    MARSHA COLEMAN-ADEBAYOGood afternoon. Thank you for having me.

  • 12:00:59

    NNAMDIMarsha, what is Moses African Cemetery?

  • 12:01:03

    COLEMAN-ADEBAYOMoses African Cemetery is the site of right now an atrocity that's occurring. I should tell you that, you know, our community is in a great deal of pain right now. We've been denied our dignity through the desecration of our ancestors, the Black community that survived slavery and built homes on their property. Their lives matter. Their contribution to Bethesda and to this country mattered. When Bethesda residents shop at places like Whole Foods or take a bite at McDonald's they don't realize that they are at the heart of what once was a scene of a crime, an atrocity.

  • 12:01:44

    COLEMAN-ADEBAYOThis is the area where four plantations that really should be called death camps were located, the Counselman, Loughborough, Shoemaker and Posey plantations. And they were a part of a global network of kidnapping African people in order to enrich themselves. These plantations grew primarily tobacco until the early 1800s.

  • 12:02:09

    COLEMAN-ADEBAYOBut how do you hold people against their will? It's always through torture or the threat of violence, torture, rape or separation of families. And this is the history that is being destroyed today in plain sight. The county has based its entire argument for desecrating what BACC calls Old Moses on the premise that the cemetery is confined to two parcels.

  • 12:02:38

    COLEMAN-ADEBAYOAnd in one sentence the entire history of a Black community is erased. But our community was much larger, more complex than just simply a cemetery. For example, the county won't tell you anything about Grayland as this entire area was once called by the Black community. Our ancestors called the area now being desecrated Grayland in recognition of the brilliant, entrepreneurial Grayland family that bought massive amounts of land in this area.

  • 12:03:12

    COLEMAN-ADEBAYOOnly three years after slavery, and this area contained the homes of the river sisters and the Warren family and so many others. These founding families of Bethesda lived, worked, died, buried their dead in the area that is now being desecrated and destroyed. For example, frames of their homes, 19th century homes, have been found during the excavation period and destroyed by the construction company. How hateful and how racist.

  • 12:03:49

    NNAMDITell us about the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition and what the goals are.

  • 12:03:56

    COLEMAN-ADEBAYOWell, the goals are very simply right now our goal is to stop the destruction and the desecration of the cemetery. This cemetery is divided into two unequal parts. One part is what we call Old Moses of 19th century where kidnapped Africans were buried and most likely other post-emancipated Africans were buried until the 20th century until a benevolent society bought adjacent land. And this is the area where a self-storage company is destroying and desecrating today. The goal of the county is to place a self-storage company on top of this historic burial ground and community. In the 20th century a benevolent society called Whites Tabernacle bought land to properly bury their dead. And we call this the New Moses. The New Moses is also desecrated, and lies under a parking lot near the HLC building.

  • 12:05:01

    NNAMDIJoining us now is Kristina Gaddy, Baltimore-based writer, who recently wrote a piece for Washington City Paper about Moses African Cemetery titled "Burial Grounds." Kristina Gaddy, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:05:13

    KRISTINA GADDYThank you for having me.

  • 12:05:15

    NNAMDIYou recently published the article that I just mentioned in City Paper. How did you hear about the situation in Bethesda and why did you decide to write about it?

  • 12:05:23

    GADDYSo I heard about it from Brian Farrow, who is one of the protestors. I know him through music stuff in the D.C.-Baltimore area. And he had heard it on social media. And I saw that it really wasn't being covered in the press very much. And, you know, thought it was an important story. As Marsha has pointed out, the African American history in Montgomery County has really been, you know, willfully forgotten and willfully obscured. And, you know, this was another example of that. And obviously it's a very important story that needs to be covered even probably on a more regular basis than I've been able to do.

  • 12:06:11

    NNAMDIKristina, how has 1784 Holding, the company building the storage facility responded to the protests over the site?

  • 12:06:21

    GADDYWell, I think, you know, one of the things that Jarvis Stewart, who was fired (unintelligible) also Bethesda Self-Storage partners has told me is that they feel as though they have gone above and beyond what Montgomery County planning has told them to do and that they are doing archeology -- they have archeologists on site. They've hired Dr. Alexander Jones who's (unintelligible) Montgomery County in the Gibson Grove community and African American burial practices. And so they feel as though they are doing what they should be doing to make sure that, you know, there is in fact no one buried in this area.

  • 12:07:20

    NNAMDIWe spoke with the aforementioned Jarvis Stewart of 1784 Holdings yesterday. He is their spokesperson. He may at some point call in during this segment. We also spoke with David Rotenstein a historian working with 1784 Holdings. He said that there are indeed significant historic sites that should be protected in the area, but in speaking specifically about the construction site we're talking about today, here's what he said.

  • 12:07:50

    DAVID ROTENSTEINThe property that's under construction adjacent to the former White's Tabernacle cemetery does not appear to be related to the White's Tabernacle parcels and in my opinion doesn't meet the same criteria laid out for the actual White's Tabernacle Cemetery.

  • 12:08:10

    NNAMDIMarsha Coleman-Adebayo, how would you respond to that?

  • 12:08:13

    COLEMAN-ADEBAYOI think that's just academically dishonest to be honest with you. David Rotenstein before he joined the payroll of the developer, sent an email to Montgomery County Mark Elrich and he said just exactly the opposite. If you don't mind me. It's a very short quote.

  • 12:08:33


  • 12:08:34

    COLEMAN-ADEBAYOHe says, "The entire area likely contains human remains from the Moses Cemetery. To be blunt, it is likely that the entire HLC property was transformed into one large mass grave. Something to chew on as the county continues to demand science to delineate any cemetery." I mean, one of the problems we've had to be very frank with you and it's not just, you know, Isolated to Bethesda's -- to BACC, is that this is a David and Goliath fight.

  • 12:09:11

    COLEMAN-ADEBAYOWe are fighting a multibillionaire -- a multibillion, a multimillion dollar corporation. We're a small community organization. And so they can afford to hire people like, Jarvis who sort of prides himself on ownership of what he calls a crisis PR firm, which, you know, if you watch the T.V. program "Scandal" that was sort of a crisis PR firm. When companies really get into trouble, they hire these very specialized PR firms to sort of drag them out of, you know, trouble.

  • 12:09:49

    COLEMAN-ADEBAYOSo they've hired, you know, Jarvis. They've hired Dr. Jones. What's interesting about her in fact is that she was on our mailing list until I think very recently maybe two weeks ago. And so she knew that we were fighting for this site, this burial ground and never called me one time to say, "Is there anything I can do to help you since I worked with another community." And so, you know, these people are changing their tune, because their paychecks have changed basically. And this is what we're up against. We're up against a very large corporation that can hire all kinds of people, Black people, white people, yellow people to come against us. But we are convinced of is that the truth will prevail.

  • 12:10:38

    NNAMDIHere's Simon in Bethesda, Maryland. Simon, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:10:43

    SIMONHi. I just wanted to call in. First of just to thank Marsha Coleman-Adebayo for leading this effort. I think it's really important and it's such a small organization that's taking on such a big multimillion dollar corporation as she's saying. My question has to do with -- I've been following the issue and have noticed that it seems like there are some findings, archeological findings that are happening that would raise concern about continuing the construction even per the permit that the construction company has. And I do know that there's been some communication with the county executive on this matter, Marc Elrich. So I'm wondering if they keep finding archeological things that raise concern and this is brought to the county executive, why has he continued to claim that he can't do anything on the matter.

  • 12:11:38

    NNAMDIIndeed. We got a tweet from Monica who writes, "I do not understand why Marc Elrich has not fixed this yet." Marsha, care to respond?

  • 12:11:45

    COLEMAN-ADEBAYOYeah. I mean, that's the same question we all have. If I could just go back one question before the last question there.

  • 12:11:52

    NNAMDIGot about a minute left in this segment, but go ahead.

  • 12:11:54

    COLEMAN-ADEBAYOSure. Well, Marc Elrich -- we sent Marc Elrich a letter two days ago basically providing pictures of tombstones, pictures of people on the sight actually carrying away precious artifacts from the cemetery. We've also sent the same letter and the same pictures to our state's attorney, McCarthy, asking him to close this site down. We're finding too many burial artifacts. And so these artifacts, the finding of these artifacts should have stopped the construction immediately. But for some reason all of these political officials are just turning a deaf eye.

  • 12:12:39

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:13:04

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about the struggle over Moses African Cemetery and taking your calls. Kristina Gaddy, this dispute is not new. As a matter of fact, we had Marsha on back in 2017. And apparently the plan at that time was to build a huge shopping mall on this site. How long have plans to build these storage facilities been in place and when did the protests against the construction begin, Kristina?

  • 12:13:26

    GADDYYeah. So this -- well, it's obviously been ongoing for hundreds years if we take a very long look at it. But in 2015, Montgomery Planning started what they called the Westbard Sector Plan and they called this area Westbard. And wanted to, you know, revamp it in a way that we've seen in a lot of places in Montgomery County. But also other suburbs of D.C. with more green space (unintelligible). And in that planning, they made this very large report and even then they had members of the planning staff saying, there is historic evidence for a cemetery here. But we have no idea where the boundaries really lie.

  • 12:14:15

    GADDYAnd even then or shortly thereafter, Marsha and BACC were concerned because that employee had written that, you know, there could be remains that were no (unintelligible) the new Moses Cemetery that Marsha said earlier, but that they could have shifted in the construction of the Westwood Tower and the Westbard Shopping Center back in the 1960s. And so they brought up this concern because it said in places that there was no alleged cemetery. That the cemetery was no longer there. And there isn't really evidence that any of the remains have been moved, any concrete evidence.

  • 12:15:10

    GADDYBut New York based Equity One at the time centers later, they basically said, Okay, we'll take away the (unintelligible) then we won't have to do any archeology. We'll have to, you know, delineate the cemetery. And so they were kind of off the hook. And then at the same time Bethesda Self-Storage partners also in 2017 had bought the land.

  • 12:15:37

    NNAMDIYour line is breaking up on us and we can't hear you very well. I think we're going to try to get back to you again, Kristina, so we can get a better line for you. In the meantime, here is Ralph in Bethesda, Maryland. Ralph, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:15:53

    RALPHThank you, Kojo. I have a question for Dr. Adebayo. It's very fine that the self-storage people have two archeologists on their staff. Why don't you -- why doesn't the Bethesda African American Cemetery Commission hire an archeologist and send that person in, somebody who will look independently at the site rather than being on somebody's payroll.

  • 12:16:20

    NNAMDII think they have. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo.

  • 12:16:22

    COLEMAN-ADEBAYOWell, I think that's an excellent question obviously. Obviously the archeologists that are hired by the self-storage company have a conflict of interest, because they're being paid to produce a certain product. We started working with world renowned archeologist Michael Blakey, who was a chief scientist for the New York burial ground project about three to four years ago.

  • 12:16:50

    COLEMAN-ADEBAYOHe actually submitted a proposal to the same Parks and Planning Office that Kristina was talking about and they rejected him even though his credentials, obviously, are impeccable and he's considered like the most preeminent expert on African American burial grounds. And they rejected him in favor of a white -- what they call cultural resource team. And we had a meeting with the white resource cultural team and we asked them why -- I mean, when you look at your two resumes, your resume is obviously quite much thinner than someone like Dr. Blakey.

  • 12:17:33

    COLEMAN-ADEBAYOAnd we asked them, why did the county choose you over someone like Dr. Blakey? They were honest enough to tell us, it was because of white skin privilege. So if you fast forward a couple of years later to now, we are still trying to get Dr. Blakey to conduct an independent investigation into Moses. He did submit another proposal to the self-storage company. They came back with the almost apartheid era kind of response, which is, you will only be allowed to go to the cemetery certain hours. I think it was two hours every two weeks. I think only between the hours of seven and some other evening hour.

  • 12:18:18

    COLEMAN-ADEBAYOI mean, of course, no one would agree to that. No self-respecting professional would agree to have his work edited like that. And then Dr. Blakey was kind enough to resubmit another proposal. And the storage company came back and said that because we are protesting, because we are tapping into our First Amendment rights and our right to assemble that he would not be allowed to conduct an investigation.

  • 12:18:49


  • 12:18:50

    COLEMAN-ADEBAYOSo this has become just an impossible situation. And it doesn't seem that County Executive Marc Elrich or the state's attorney have any ability at all to sort of control this, like I said, multimillion dollar construction company or developer. So they get away with quite frankly these outrageous statements towards us.

  • 12:19:14

    NNAMDILet me see if Kristina Gaddy is back with us. Kristina, are you there?

  • 12:19:17

    GADDYI'm here.

  • 12:19:19

    NNAMDIEverybody it seems wants to know why the lack of involvement of the Montgomery county executive and Marsha mentioned the Montgomery County state's attorney. But people probably would be also wondering about the Montgomery County Council and Montgomery County Planning Commission. What's the level of their involvement in this?

  • 12:19:40

    GADDYSo Montgomery County has a complicated situation, because Montgomery Planning is separate from the County Council and from the county government. It exists within the, you know, Greater Maryland National Capital Planning Commission. So the oversight there isn't what it might be in another jurisdiction. And so Marc Elrich has said, I can't do anything about this. I can't stop this. And Planning says, you know, we can put these restrictions on a company that they would have to do archeology. But they -- you know, we can't go on to private land and just do whatever we want.

  • 12:20:29

    GADDYAnd so, you know, the question of that kind of remains -- I mean, it ends up being a legal fight of what you can and can't do on private land. But, you know, Marc Elrich didn't respond to me for comments for the story and neither did Councilman Friedsen, who is the council person for that area. And again, Montgomery Planning has kind of the same line that the developer has, which is, this isn't the historic cemetery. So we don't need to -- you know, we don't believe that this is the cemetery. And then on -- yeah.

  • 12:21:13

    NNAMDIOkay. Here is Paige in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Paige, we only have about a minute and a half left. But go ahead, please.

  • 12:21:19

    PAIGEHey, there. Kojo, thank you for doing this. Marsha, hello. This is Paige Whitley from Chevy Chase. I and two colleagues, Amy Risbon and David Caseton wrote an article about the history of this community. And I'm afraid there are a few errors that have come up. It was named Graysville according to an 1875 newspaper article I found based on Frank Gray, the leader, who did with a partner buy land in 1869 to form -- to begin this community. But I want to also say there may be some confusion here and I'm not sure why.

  • 12:21:53

    PAIGEThe distinction of Old Moses being the current site of the construction and New Moses as being the site that White's Tabernacle #39, the Benevolent Society bought in 1911 and had until 1958, the Warren land, William Warren buying the land in 1873 --

  • 12:22:13

    NNAMDIYou only got about 30 seconds left. You have to hurry, Paige.

  • 12:22:16

    PAIGEOkay. Got to go. There was a dozen land transactions showing Edward Warren selling land. The school, Rosenwald School, was built there and Warren quick claimed that land. So I don't understand how they would knowingly sell burial land if this was indeed Old Moses.

  • 12:22:36

    NNAMDILast comment coming from you, Marsha. And you only have about 25 seconds.

  • 12:22:39

    COLEMAN-ADEBAYOOkay. I absolutely have to say -- if I only have 20 seconds. And please forgive me Paige. You and I can have lunch together next week and we can debate all the history. But we really do need people to give us -- to please call Marc Elrich and tell him that this is outrageous and that he must stop. He is now moved his position.

  • 12:22:57

    NNAMDIAnd I can tell you a lot of people have called here today and apparently most of the calls have been kind of in support of you. But I'm afraid we got to go. Thank you, Marsha. Thank you, Kristina. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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