Judge halts sale of apartment complex where Black graves were buried beneath parking lot

A group coalition has offered “overwhelming proof” {that a} portion of a suburban Washington house advanced was used as a burial floor for freed Black slaves and their descendants and “many our bodies probably nonetheless stay on the property,” a Maryland decide dominated Monday in a case by the group to thwart the sale of the property.

The Montgomery County Housing Alternatives Fee’s pending $50 million sale of Westwood Tower in Bethesda to an area funding agency, Charger Ventures, drew intense public opposition over the summer season and led to the lawsuit filed by the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition. The group had furnished historic accounts indicating the gravesite — referred to as Moses Cemetery — was paved over with asphalt for a car parking zone when the flats went up within the late Sixties. The coalition accused the fee of violating state legislation by failing to get court docket approval for the house advanced’s sale, which is generally required when cemetery property is concerned.

Decide Karla Smith of the Montgomery County Circuit Court docket denied a movement by the fee searching for to dismiss the swimsuit, whereas granting a preliminary injunction to halt the sale.

In making her resolution, Smith wrote that there’s a public curiosity in preserving the property and there was nothing within the county’s contract to compel the potential new proprietor to take action.

“No matter whether or not Charger decides to maintain the car parking zone, construct on the lot, or dig up the lot, our bodies of African Individuals stay there,” she wrote, including that “the Court docket has an obligation to make sure that such resting place is revered.”

Moses Cemetery, which operated from 1911 to 1958, is what’s left of a historic Black group in Bethesda’s River Highway enclave. Final month, Smith heard greater than 12 hours of testimony throughout an emergency listening to within the case, together with from a person who is among the solely surviving members of the River Highway part, which disappeared when Black households had been squeezed out by builders within the Nineteen Fifties.

Harvey Matthews, who’s in his 70s, testified that as a boy he recalled seeing some 200 grave markers earlier than many had been destroyed throughout development of Westwood Tower.

“They had been discovering physique components — arms, legs,” he testified, including that if digging had been to happen on the web site at present, “physique components will bounce up at you want popcorn.”

Smith stated it was important to listen to from group members, together with the descendants of those that had been final identified to have been buried on the cemetery.

“The Court docket can’t ignore that Plaintiffs, African Individuals, are searching for to protect the reminiscence of their kinfolk and people with whom they share a cultural affiliation,” she wrote. “Nor can the Court docket ignore that as early because the Thirties when development started within the River Highway group, the deceased have been forgotten, forsaken and their last resting locations destroyed or, at a minimal, desecrated.”

Steven Lieberman, an legal professional for the coalition, stated the county might select to attraction the ruling and try to get it reversed, or observe state legislation and acquire court docket approval for any future sale.

Neither the Housing Alternatives Fee nor Charger Ventures instantly responded to requests for touch upon subsequent steps.

Efforts to guard unmarked Black graves throughout the nation have ramped up lately as researchers say the websites have grow to be more and more endangered for quite a lot of causes, together with improvement, an absence of historic record-keeping, no political willpower to save lots of them, and local weather change.

Lieberman stated the victory in Montgomery County might function a blueprint somewhere else with related legal guidelines.

“Fairly often, these burial grounds are beneath a freeway bypass, or they have been plowed beneath for different makes use of, and this actually does give folks a street map in tips on how to deal with these points,” he stated.

Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, president of the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition. Gail Rebhan

Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, president of the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition, stated the group remains to be searching for accountability and would really like the land to be returned to the Black group and an area Black church to be correctly memorialized.

She sees the court docket ruling as a direct opposition to the Supreme Court docket’s 1857 Dred Scott resolution that decided even freed slaves weren’t Americans.

“For the primary time, African ancestors who had no voice whereas they had been alive had been heard in an American courtroom,” Coleman-Adebayo stated, “and so they received.”

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