The Moses Macedonia African Cemetery once sat on the site of the Westwood Tower Apartments. Credit: Dan Schere

The Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition (BACC) has called for a boycott of the Juneteenth celebrations sponsored by Montgomery County to pressure officials to return bones and bone fragments recovered in 2020 at the development site of Bethesda Self Storage.

Instead, the coalition is offering its own celebration Monday, with touted appearances from U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-8th District) and Del. Lorig Charkoudian (D-Dist. 20).

For more than seven years, the coalition has fought for the preservation of land where once stood Moses Cemetery, the burial ground of enslaved and formerly enslaved Africans of the River Road community. According to county officials, in the 1960s the cemetery was paved over to create the parking lot and driveway for the Westwood Tower Apartments at 5401 Westbard Ave.

County officials and the coalition have recognized this land, known as Parcels 175 and 177, as the Moses African Cemetery. In 2021, BACC blocked the sale of the Westwood Tower Apartments from the county’s Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC) to Charger Ventures LLC . On Oct. 6, 2022 the HOC filed an appeal of the injunction with the State’s Court of Special Appeals; a ruling has not been issued.

In the meantime, another dispute has arisen over the storage site, on a parcel of land that the coalition alleges is also a burial ground.

Along with the boycott, the coalition is demanding that County Executive Marc Elrich (D) return and deliver the “complete chain of custody of the bones to representatives of BACC by Juneteenth,” a news release said.


Elrich says the bones are not human and that the particular area in question—unlike some other River Road lots—was never a cemetery.

The coalition, using Maryland Public Information Act requests, obtained reports that revealed bones from a 2020 excavation of the Bethesda Self Storage site had been held at a Wetland Studies and Solutions Inc. (WSSI) warehouse in Gainesville, Virginia, according to coalition President Marsha Coleman-Adebayo.

Thunderbird Archaeology reports viewed by MoCo360 show that archaeologists with Thunderbird–a branch of WSSI–labeled the bones as “faunal,” or animal.


WSSI was contracted by Bethesda Self Storage to analyze the contents of the lot, according to Jarvis Stewart, a spokesperson for WSSI.

According to Stewart, more than 200 bones uncovered at the site are still at the warehouse. Stewart told MoCo360 that of the bones found, “a good sampling” were tested and examined by archaeologists who determined “none of them were human remains, but from chickens, pigs, cows and rats.”

When told the MPIA requests obtained photos of bones that were being held at WSSI facilities, Elrich told MoCo360, “One thing we could do is we could say, ‘If you have bones in your warehouse in Virginia … we’d like them provided for an independent examination.’ That’s an easy enough thing to do.”


Stewart said, “We are obviously more than willing to entertain that conversation with the county executive.”

The Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition sent out a press release, calling for a boycott of Montgomery County sponsored Juneteenth celebrations and the return of bones found while excavating a site the coalition alleges is a mass gravesite for enslaved people. Credit: Screenshot of the release from Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition

The coalition alleges that those two parcels of land–labeled as lots 242 and 191 and which they call “old Moses cemetery” —is also the site of an unmarked burial ground for enslaved people.

Parcels 242 and 191 sit behind a McDonald’s on River Road, which Bethesda Self Storage Partners LLC own and have been excavating.


Coleman-Adebayo said the coalition hopes to memorialize the land.

“Our goal is to … build a UNESCO-worthy museum in that area, which will also act as a community center for learning and culture and the arts. And to make sure that people understand what happens when you decide to [commit] genocide and how this community fought back,” she said. “And then the part where the bodies are under the parking lot, we’d like to create a sacred space; we don’t want the bodies moved. We think they have every right to rest there.”

Enslaved children, who often died young, “were dumped in a place that we now call old Moses. That’s the cemetery that’s closest to River Road. And we think that is probably one of the largest mass graves in the United States.”


Coleman-Adebayo did not state how many bodies she believed to be buried in Old Moses cemetery.

Montgomery County officials and Parks and Planning have researched the history of the cemetery and excavated the land in 2020 prior to constructing the storage facility. County officials have maintained that that there are no gravesites there.

MoCo360 obtained a letter from Elrich to Coleman-Adebayo dated Jan. 13, in which he wrote that he visited the excavation site, spoke with Thunderbird archaeologists, “read the reports, reviewed the documents” and had State’s Attorney John McCarthy visit the site. McCarthy’s visit concluded that there was no evidence of a cemetery or remains in Parcels 242 and 191 and the archaeologists were following required procedures, Elrich wrote.


“Even though we may disagree on some points, I believe we share the desire to see this history memorialized,” Elrich wrote. “I remain steadfast in wanting to find a path to memorialization that is accepted by your coalition and developed in conjunction with multiple descendant communities,” he wrote in the letter.

Elrich told MoCo360 during a phone call Thursday that Coleman-Adebayo is “fighting over something that doesn’t exist” and was “lying” that the land was a burial ground.

Stewart also said that Coleman-Adebayo was sharing a narrative that is “misleading the public.”


In response, Coleman-Adebayo wrote to MoCo360 in an email, “County Executive Marc Elrich’s statement that I am a liar flies in the face of the county’s experts” and an anthropologist the coalition consulted. The anthropologist, Michael Blakey of the College of William & Mary, did not immediately respond last week to requests from comment from MoCo360.

“Denying the existence of burials [in Parcel] 242 is denying the existence of slavery on River Road and disregarding the county’s own historical records,” Coleman-Adebayo wrote.

The coalition filed MPIA requests to learn about the findings of the excavations and examination process. The results of the report involved photos of bone fragments and information that the bones were at the Wetland Studies and Solutions Inc. warehouse. The coalition alleges that the company contracted to excavate the site, Thunderbird Archaeology, did not test the bones nor inform the descendant community.


According to Stewart, archaeology contractors sent seven weekly reports of findings from the 2020 excavation to Blakey, the anthropologist the coalition worked with to determine excavation protocols and oversight, and to Joshua Odintz, a lawyer representing the group.

BACC also alleges the that the handling of the contents of the lot was not in accordance with the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, which details procedures regarding the disruption of a cemetery and archaeological best practices which mandate the inclusion of the descendant community in the central role of the disposition of ancestral remains.

Two of the reports, which were obtained by MoCo360, show that artifacts such as a glass coke bottle, fragments of ceramic pottery, bricks and bone fragments were uncovered during excavation.


Coleman-Adebayo and her group see hypocrisy in the county’s stance on the lots and on Juneteenth.

“The folks in Bethesda didn’t live to see Juneteenth. But … they were all victims of this racism. And we are still the symptoms of this racism right now,” she said. “So we think that it’s just highly hypocritical and performative, quite frankly, for the county to hold a Juneteenth while they’re actively desecrating.”

In response to the calls to boycott the county’s Juneteenth celebrations, Elrich said, “I can’t stop her from boycotting; she can do whatever she wants to do.”


On Monday, BACC will hold its own Juneteenth celebration at the site of the Moses African Cemetery on 5214 River Road in Bethesda from 2 to 5 p.m. Among a handful of speakers and performers at the celebration, Raskin and Charkoudian will be in attendance.