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

A community coalition in Maryland has presented “frustrating evidence” that a portion of a suburban

A community coalition in Maryland has presented “frustrating evidence” that a portion of a suburban Washington apartment elaborate was made use of as a burial ground for freed Black slaves and their descendants and “many bodies probable continue to continue being on the property,” a state decide ruled Monday in a circumstance by the team to thwart the sale of the assets.

The Montgomery County Housing Alternatives Commission’s pending $50 million sale of Westwood Tower in Bethesda to a nearby investment organization, Charger Ventures, drew intensive general public opposition in excess of the summer months and led to the lawsuit submitted by the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition. The team experienced furnished historical accounts indicating the gravesite — recognized as Moses Cemetery — was paved around with asphalt for a parking ton when the residences went up in the late 1960s. The coalition accused the fee of violating condition law by failing to get courtroom acceptance for the apartment complex’s sale, which is ordinarily necessary when cemetery home is concerned.

Decide Karla Smith of the Montgomery County Circuit Court denied a motion by the commission looking for to dismiss the match, when granting a preliminary injunction to halt the sale.

In making her final decision, Smith wrote that there is a community curiosity in preserving the home and there was nothing at all in the county’s contract to compel the prospective new owner to do so.

“No matter of irrespective of whether Charger decides to maintain the parking lot, establish on the whole lot, or dig up the good deal, bodies of African Individuals keep on being there,” she wrote, introducing that “the Courtroom has an obligation to make certain that this kind of resting location is revered.”

Moses Cemetery, which operated from 1911 to 1958, is what is left of a historic Black local community in Bethesda’s River Road enclave. Last thirty day period, Smith heard more than 12 several hours of testimony through an emergency listening to in the case, like from a gentleman who is one particular of the only surviving associates of the River Highway segment, which disappeared when Black family members were being squeezed out by builders in the 1950s.

Harvey Matthews, who is in his 70s, testified that as a boy he recalled viewing some 200 grave markers just before lots of ended up wrecked during development of Westwood Tower.

“They had been acquiring physique areas — arms, legs,” he testified, incorporating that if digging had been to arise at the internet site nowadays, “overall body sections will leap up at you like popcorn.”

Smith mentioned it was significant to listen to from group users, which include the descendants of those people who ended up past recognized to have been buried at the cemetery.

“The Court docket are unable to ignore that Plaintiffs, African Individuals, are in search of to maintain the memory of their family and individuals with whom they share a cultural affiliation,” she wrote. “Nor can the Court docket ignore that as early as the 1930s when building began in the River Road community, the deceased have been forgotten, forsaken and their ultimate resting sites destroyed or, at a bare minimum, desecrated.”

Steven Lieberman, an lawyer for the coalition, claimed the county could select to charm the ruling and try to get it reversed, or abide by condition regulation and acquire courtroom approval for any upcoming sale.

In a statement Tuesday, the Housing Opportunities Commission said it intends to pursue a authorized path for a system that would make it possible for the sale to advance.

“It is not the selection the Commission had hoped for having said that, it is vital to take note that these choices are preliminary and not conclusive as to the Housing Opportunities Commission’s ultimate ability to move forward with a sale of Westwood Tower,” Roy Priest, the chairman of the commission’s board, claimed. “Our focus continues to be on our mission and mandate to produce housing alternatives to the 43,000 households all over this area that are ready to connect with Montgomery County residence.”

Charger Ventures did not respond to a request for remark on its future steps.

Initiatives to safeguard unmarked Black graves throughout the nation have ramped up in latest yrs as researchers say the sites have turn out to be significantly endangered for a assortment of reasons, like advancement, a absence of historic history-maintaining, no political willpower to help you save them, and local climate alter.

Lieberman said the victory in Montgomery County could serve as a blueprint in other places with very similar regulations.

“Quite usually, these burial grounds are underneath a highway bypass, or they have been plowed beneath for other utilizes, and this actually does give persons a highway map in how to tackle these challenges,” he explained.

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

Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, president of the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition, reported the group is however in search of accountability and would like the land to be returned to the Black local community and a community Black church to be appropriately memorialized.

She sees the court docket ruling as a direct opposition to the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott selection that established even freed slaves have been not American citizens.

“For the initial time, African ancestors who had no voice when they have been alive have been heard in an American courtroom,” Coleman-Adebayo explained, “and they gained.”