We write in response to your email of August 10, 2020 addressed to the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition (BACC). For almost 4 years we have engaged in a struggle to honor the memory of our ancestors and preserve the sanctity of their final resting place. Our awareness of the rich and deep history of the Black community, and the wealth of our heritage compelled us to establish BACC to involve other community members outside of the River Road community.
We have important common interests in the preservation of the memory and history of communities like ours that have faced such difficult challenges of structural white supremacy and racism. We would like to meet with you to ensure a full understanding of your particular struggles and how we might be of assistance. We look forward to finding areas of common interests where we can work together.
You should know that the storage company and its team including a PR firm has used your letter to generate opposition to our struggle to preserve the Bethesda Road African American Community's burial sites among the County Council, the Planning Board and County Executive. We do not believe that was your intention. However, whomever provided you with this misinformation did so maliciously to misinform you and to drive a wedge between us—while the desecration continues, and your ancestors’ final resting place is coming into the crosshairs of a similar process, by the same county facilitators. While we should be allies, these attempts at sewing discord between us imperil us both. Rather we would like to build a bridge to you and join arm in arm to achieve mutual goals.
It is critically important to realize that we define “Moses African Cemetery,” more broadly than “Moses Cemetery.” This is where misunderstandings originate. MBC and BACC do not limit our focus to the undisputed location of the cemetery that was established by White’s Tabernacle No. 39 of the Ancient United Order of Sons and Daughters, Brothers and Sisters of Moses in 1911. When we use the phrase “Moses African Cemetery” we are referring to the totality of burial sites—formal graves that were likely created by free Blacks after the Civil War who owned properties in the area beyond Parcels 175 & 177; or mass graves, that were created around the late 1950s when bulldozers dug trenches during the construction of the Westwood Tower.
Further, we also bear witness to the genocide of Black people, from African nation-states, that was perpetrated throughout the period of active slavery, continued through Jim Crow, instituted through the theft of land from Black property owners in the River Road community, and installed in perpetuity by the annihilation of the rich history of this once thriving community that was displaced by developers in collusion with the county government. For the record, genocide is defined by the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide - Article 2 as "any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group: Killing members of the group; Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Since 1713 when the first land grant was made that covered the River Road area there is a 152 year-long gap during which kidnapped Africans were enslaved, trafficked, forced into sexual violence, industrial scale breeding, worked to death, and generally tortured in the River Road area. In the 1800s, three large plantations met in the vicinity of where Macedonia Baptist Church stands today. The area roughly located where Westwood Tower now stands and extending through the area now under construction at the Bethesda Self Storage site and beyond was low lying, unusable land for farming.
Slave cabins were located in the area and it is likely where dead Blacks were buried. After the Civil War, free Blacks purchased most of this same land, lived there, and buried their dead there. Thus, when we use the phrase “Moses African Cemetery” we are referring to that entire area that is likely to contain—or at least did contain until the recent desecration—the bodies of enslaved Africans, as well as the bodies of 1st generation free Blacks in the United States.
We do not contend now and have never contended that those interred in the cemetery established by White’s Tabernacle suffered the same fates as their ancestors prior to Emancipation. Nor do we confine our definition of the burial grounds to the cemetery that was established by White’s Tabernacle.
Two members of the Bethesda Self Storage Partners (BSSP) “team” have declared themselves: Folklorist, Dr. David Rotenstein, and archeologist, Dr. Alexandra Jones.
David Rotenstein himself wrote in a 3/5/18 email to Marc Elrich:
“Using the Montgomery County standard for decision making, i.e., a cemetery is a place where human remains are found, then it is entirely possible that the entire HOC property and adjacent ones meet that definition, Some in the Moses Cemetery might have been relocated elsewhere as historical evidence suggests. But, that practice likely involved removing a few big bones — the skull, some long bones (arm and leg) — while all remaining bones were left in-situ. Those remaining bones, along with those in graves not “relocated” were then subjected to all subsequent major ground altering activities. Basically, all construction activities undertaken at the time the cemetery first was disturbed likely distributed crushed and broken bones from one end the HOC parcel to the other and beyond. The entire area likely contains human remains from the Moses Cemetery. To be blunt, it’s likely that the entire HOC property was transformed into one large mass grave.” (Emphasis added)
Another part of your letter attacked our credibility with: “While Macedonia Baptist Church maintains it is the only institution left with any historical claim for the ancestors buried in the River Road Moses Cemetery, it has not provided any documentation for any church members buried there.”
The statement above reflects a misunderstanding of the history of River Road. The sacred soil of Moses African Cemetery contains the souls of esteemed and beloved members of Macedonia Baptist Church including the Burley, Rivers, Brown, Jackson, Thomas and Clipper families.
Before the establishment of White’s Tabernacle #39 in 1911 in Washington, DC, the Warren and Rivers families established homes on what is now called parcel #242. The Warren family would be buried in the plot of land that would later be called Moses Cemetery. Nelson Warren, Jr. would be buried in 1903 and his father Nelson Warren, Sr. in 1909. William, Cleveland and Herman Clipper, grandchildren of Nelson Warren, Jr. would also live on that plot of land that is now being desecrated. These burials pre-date the purchase by White’s Tabernacle. Warren Family members played a role in the establishment of the newly created Macedonia Baptist Church. The daughter of Nelson Warren, Jr., Blanche L Warren married William W Clipper – thus uniting two prominent River Road families.
The cemetery behind Macedonia Baptist Church, before it was moved to its current location, contained direct ancestors of members of the church. Macedonia was legally recognized and established in 1920. The church recently celebrated its 100th anniversary on River Road.
We have never claimed that we are the “only institution left with any historical claim for the ancestors buried in Moses.” What we have said is that Macedonia is the sole surviving institution of a once vibrant and thriving African community on River Road. Macedonia is established as "descendant community" under the National Trust's rubric. As a matter of fact, we reached out to communities in Ken-gar, Tobytown, Scotland and through the United Singing Convention of Montgomery County, The Black Ministers Conference of Montgomery County (representing more than 60 Black congregations in Montgomery County) in an effort to broaden the descendant community. We, along with the Scotland AME Church, Tobytown community collaborated with faculty and students of the American University to organize an exhibit at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center titled ‘Plans to Prosper You: Reflections of Black Resistance and Resilience in Montgomery County's Potomac River Valley.’ Our intent was to educate the public and engender public support for our advocacy to prevent further desecration of the burial ground.
We note that on page 10 of his report titled, ‘The River Road Moses Cemetery: A Historic Preservation Evaluation,’ Dr. Rotenstein wrote:
“Macedonia Baptist Church is the sole surviving cultural institution from River Road’s African American community. In 2016, the church began an advocacy campaign to preserve and commemorate the River Road Moses Cemetery site. This campaign spurred Bethesda residents to interrogate their own history and to engage in history-based activism around the cemetery issue. Several substantive research products have resulted from these efforts, including detailed historical summaries submitted to Montgomery County planners and the publication in 2017 of an article about the community and the cemetery. Architectural historians in the Maryland- National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M- NCPPC) also conducted extensive research on the community and the cemetery in the Montgomery County Planning Department’s efforts to update the sector plan for the area where the community and cemetery are located.” (Emphasis added)
Dr. Alexandra Jones wrote in her (2010) dissertation on the Gibson Grove community that during her research:
“With each person I interviewed, I inquired about Moses Hall and the cemetery. Yet no one was able to tell me any more than a few facts about organization. No one referred to the lodge by the name Morningstar Tabernacle #88 Grand United Order Brothers and Sisters, Sons and Daughters of Moses, they only called it Moses Hall...The persons interviewed were all children during the time of the lodges operation (except one person). It was the forgetting or the absence of mention to the children about lodge business, which resulted in the silences now about the organization.”
We are curious how it could be that so little could have been known about the history of “Morningstar Tabernacle #88” by these people interviewed by Dr. Jones in 2010 and that their offspring would be in possession of such detailed information in 2020!! Furthermore, Dr. Jones was aware, as a recipient of regular BACC e-mails about Moses Cemetery and at least one phone conversation, a couple of years ago, about our struggle for Moses. At no point, did she offer to connect our two communities or to provide contact information so that we could communicate.
The bible says that “truth crushed to the ground will rise.” Ironies abound in this matter, not the least being that another Black community whose cemetery is currently imperiled is spending precious time on this matter instead of fighting to protect your ancestors. It would appear that the county, the state, the historical society are concerned only with maintaining the status quo and erasing the ugly historical truths that confronted our ancestors. Our communities can change this narrative if we stand together. We invite you to a meeting to discuss how we could work together to preserve the memories of our ancestors, commemorate their legacy and stop the desecration of our cemeteries.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, Ph.D
On behalf of the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition