Poor People's Campaign

PPC sees through evil of land theft that results in thieves prospering

Contact: Martha Waggoner | [email protected]

Descendants of people buried in a Black cemetery in Maryland that was turned into a parking lot in the 1960s said Friday that the burial ground should be returned to its rightful owners, with one describing what has happened as “barbarism.”

Montani Wallace said a descendant of her late husband was buried in Moses African Cemetery. 

“What happened to respecting hallowed ground?” she asked “As a family, we lost a piece of our history and ancestral connection. This is a clear example of the destruction of African American ancestral graveyards in Montgomery County, Maryland, and throughout the United States.”

Ms. Wallace spoke during a rally at Macedonia Baptist Church in Bethesda that was followed by a march to the Moses African Cemetery, where over 500 enslaved and free people are buried. The Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition has led the right to return the cemetery to the church. 

“I was stunned to learn the burial ground of my ancestors was being sold as a real estate deal. Is this really how Black people are being treated in 2021? Quite frankly, this is barbarism,” said Darold Cuba, whose ancestors are buried in the cemetery. “No official there had the decency to reach out to me and inform me of their intentions and how it was going to affect my family. … “There is a certain level of decency that must be maintained in a civilized society.”

The co-chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, addressed the crowd remotely. 

The cemetery lies under the parking lot of an apartment complex constructed by developers in the 1960s. After Emancipation, the cemetery served the historic African River Road Community in Bethesda, which was also wiped out by development, discriminatory developers, Realtors and county officials at the time.

The BACC, the church and descendants of those buried in the cemetery recently won a temporary injunction blocking the attempted sale of the apartment building. A hearing on a preliminary injunction will be held Sept. 27.

The theft of the cemetery is part of a larger narrative of stealing land that belonged to people of color and poor white people, Rev. Barber. He pointed to a New York Times article that said 11 million acres of Black people’s land was lost and stolen, much of it in the last 50 years. 

“Instead of people’s land being a source of closing the racial gap, land holdings became a key force in widening the gap because the land was stolen,” Rev. Barber said. 

The activists should ask the courts for more than the return of the property: They also should seek financial compensation, said Rev. Barber, who also is president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach. 

“Calculate that money because somebody has made a whole lot of money, and a whole lot of dollars and a whole lot of taxes on the graves of your ancestors,” he said. “And you ought to get back more than just the graves. You ought to get back more than just the land. You ought to get back more than just the sentimental value because your people’s lives and your people’s land and the land they fought for, it was worth so much more. If it wasn’t, they would never have stolen it.”

Rev. Theoharis, who also is director of the Kairos Center for Rights, Religions and Social Justice, said that for thousands of years,those in power, the wealthy and influential who do not care about the people and do not respect the earth or God, the creator God’s self. They’re willing to engage in land grabs. They are willing to roll over or even pave over bodies in communities — the bodies and communities of those who have built up society but not been paid fair wages — unable to enjoy the fruits of their labor. But that injustice does not have the last word.”

The people buried beneath the concrete “are calling on us to make this desecration stop, to restore the memories of their lives, their struggles, their contributions and to show them the love and respect they deserve,” said Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, BACC president. “Black lives matter in life and in death.”

People must demand that the sale to Charger Ventures, an investment management company, be stopped, she said. 

“Black people are not for sale, alive or dead,” she said. “We will not go back to that. We are not for sale.”

Rev. Dr. Segun Adebayo, pastor of Macedonia Baptist Church, said that some of those buried at Moses were brought across the ocean and brutalized. “And when they died, they cast their bodies away,” he said. “In death, they were not allowed to rest in peace.” 

“But yet, we still stand,” he said. “We still stand upon the promise of God that no matter how long, truth and justice will prevail.”

SUBJECT LINE: Black cemetery fight in Maryland part of long history of land theft