2021 | Courts

Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition suing Housing Opportunities Commission

Plaintiffs argue that county did not seek court permission for sale of land

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A group of advocates and descendants of people buried in a historically Black cemetery in Bethesda have filed a complaint in Montgomery County Circuit Court against the Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC).

The lawsuit argues that the HOC did not get a court’s permission, as required by state law, before starting the process for selling land that includes part of the cemetery.

HOC Director of Legislative & Public Affairs Christina Autin wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat on Thursday that the commission is “not providing comment on this matter at this time.”

For years, the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition has advocated for the preservation of the Moses Macedonia African Cemetery — a cemetery where hundreds of enslaved Black people and their ancestors are buried, according to the lawsuit. The cemetery was paved over in the 1960s during the construction of the Westwood Tower Apartments to create a parking lot and driveways.

In recent years, the coalition has been at odds with the county over the future of the land, and has asked HOC for ownership of the parking lot to memorialize the site.

Last month, the HOC approved a letter of intent for the sale of Westwood Tower Apartments for about $51 million to Bethesda-based Charger Ventures LLC. The sale is expected to be finalized early next month.

The lawsuit against the county, filed on Monday, cites a Maryland law requiring anyone selling a cemetery property for another purpose to first obtain a court judgment for the sale. A court may impose conditions on the sale and may order that some of the proceeds from the sale, according to the law.

The law also states that a court may order proceeds from the sale be used to pay for the removal of remains from the cemetery, the purchase of burial lots elsewhere and the reburying of remains.

The lawsuit lists the coalition as a plaintiff, along with Olusegun Adebayo, the pastor of Macedonia Baptist Church.

It also lists Darold Cuba of Massachusetts, Geneva Hunter of Columbia and Montani Wallace, of Hyattsville. Cuba and Hunter are descendants of people buried in the cemetery and Wallace’s late husband was a descendant.

HOC is named as the defendant.

Under state law, a court can determine whether the sale of a cemetery site is in the public interest, and if so, under what conditions, Steven Lieberman, an attorney who represents the plaintiffs, told Bethesda Beat this week.

“For example, does there have to be preservation of the graves? Does there have to be proper memorialization? Do you have to make sure that the graves are treated properly? Do you have to make sure that the descendants of the people buried there have access, so that they can come and pay tribute to their ancestors?” he said.

As part of the process, members of the cemetery coalition are allowed to share their views in court, Lieberman explained. He said his clients want the descendants of those buried in the cemetery to “have their say.”

“If the court imposes appropriate conditions, then I’m sure the descendants will accept that. If the court doesn’t impose appropriate conditions, then they won’t,” he said. “They’ll appeal, they’ll bring additional lawsuits, they’ll bring pressure on the purchaser to properly memorialize the graves.”

Asked what would constitute appropriate conditions, Lieberman said it might be different for each plaintiff, but would likely include some type of memorialization, such as a museum or plaques.

The lawsuit is seeking a writ of mandamus, or court order, directing the HOC to go to court for permission of the sale. Lieberman said if the HOC proceeds with the sale without court permission, their view is that the sale will be invalid and will be subject to being retroactively revoked.

“HOC and the buyer are at risk now. They’re on notice, and if they don’t go into court and get court permission for the sale, they’ll be a serious question as to the validity of the sale, and a serious question as to the title of the property,” he said.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com