The Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission‘s sale of Westwood Tower Apartments in Bethesda is on hold until at least Sept. 27, following the issuance of a temporary restraining order by Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Karla Smith this week.
A small part of the land on Westbard Avenue is believed to be the former site of the Moses African Cemetery. Members of the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition have been fighting for several years to have the site memorialized. The Coalition filed a lawsuit against the sale on Aug. 12, claiming it violated state law.
The temporary restraining forbids the sale of the land on River Road to Charger Ventures LLC for about $50 million. A preliminary injunction on the matter will be held Sept. 27.
A spokesperson for the housing commission told MyMCM that it had no comment at this time.
The land by River Road was used in the early-1900s for a burial ground but was sold in the 1950s to construct the 212-apartment complex. HOC has leased the property since 1977, eventually purchasing it in December 2017 for $20 million. The commission uses the rental income to cover costs.
Members of the nearby Macedonia Baptist Church believe that their ancestors were buried there and that many of them were slaves.
“One of my most sacred duties,” said the Rev. Dr. Segun Adebayo, Macedonia Baptist Church pastor and a plaintiff in the suit, “is committing the souls of the deceased, and ensuring the sanctity of their burial ground. Because of HOC, we can’t do that at our Moses African Cemetery,” he stated in a news release.
He called the temporary restraining order “another small but crucial first step toward racial justice for the living and the dead in Montgomery County.”
Steven Lieberman, co-lead counsel for the coalition, said in a news release, “HOC’s actions are outrageous and violate the law.” Lieberman explained, “Maryland statutes specifically require that any person or entity selling property for non-burial purposes that is or was used as a burial ground approach the court for permission to make such a sale.”
He praised the court ruling. “Judge Smith’s careful and well-reasoned decision, issued from the bench after a two-hour hearing, properly evaluated the evidence and the statutes protecting the sanctity of burial grounds, and blocked the sale,” he said.
Marsha Colemen-Adebayo, coalition president, said, “This attempted sale, to be executed behind the back of our community, is an outrage,” adding, “How many times must these black bodies be placed on the auction block and sold before they can rest in peace?”
Colemen-Adebayo continued, “The callous disrespect for their humanity and the desecration of their resting places is shocking proof that in 2021 we have a long way to go before Black Lives Matter, in life, and in death. This is a first step.” She reiterated her coalition’s demand that the HOC give the land to Macedonia Baptist Church, where her husband is the pastor.
Residents Protest Development on Historic Black Cemetery in Bethesda