The Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition brought together people across generations and backgrounds to celebrate the holiday and put pressure on the county to protect the cemetery. Credit: Elia Griffin

While attendees danced to music, commemorated their Black ancestors, and ate jollof rice at the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition’s Juneteenth celebration, there were undertones of dissatisfaction and frustration with Montgomery County officials over the handling of a parcel of land the coalition believes was a mass gravesite for enslaved and formerly enslaved people.

Juneteenth, which is short for June 19, is the holiday commemorating the day the last enslaved people in the U.S. were freed and is a day for Black communities to honor their past, embrace community and celebrate resilience. Two years after President Abraham Lincoln presented the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, enslaved Texans finally heard news that they were free. In 2021, Juneteenth became a federal holiday.

U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-8th District) and State Del. Lorig Charkoudian (D-Dist. 20) also spoke at Monday’s celebration held near Moses Cemetery at 5213 River Road. Their speeches touched on the history of Juneteenth and their support for groups like the cemetery coalition that are committed to social justice and equality.

“Freedom is like a chain letter, sent from one generation to the next. And its message gets spread out as it begins to pervade the whole land. But freedom is not one final destination, it’s a continuing process and a continuing struggle,” said Raskin, who voted in Congress in 2021 to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.

The celebration was located just steps away from the disputed development site which the coalition alleges there was a mass gravesite for enslaved and formerly and enslaved people. The county maintains there was no gravesite. Credit: Elia Griffin

After Raskin spoke, two to three of attendees yelled out, “What about the cemetery? Where are the bones?”

A week prior, the coalition had sent out a press release that shared BACC filed a report through the Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA), which revealed that bones had been excavated from the parcel of land and were in a warehouse in Gainesville, Virginia.


In the release, BACC President Marsha Coleman-Adebayo called for a boycott of the Juneteenth celebrations sponsored by Montgomery County to pressure officials to return bones and bone fragments recovered by June 19.

It is disputed whether that parcel of land, deemed Parcel 242, is an actual mass gravesite. While the coalition alleges that it was a gravesite that they call “Old Moses,” county officials have maintained that there are no gravesites at the parcel.

Raskin declined to comment on the dispute.


Charkoudian also declined to comment on the dispute, but said that she came out to the coalition’s Juneteenth to support the task of memorializing Moses Cemetery.

“I’ve been in conversation with the coalition and with county folks for a while because I feel like it is incumbent on us to get the information and to find the way to memorialize and honor the cemetery that’s here,” she said. “That’s most important. I think it’s important that we stay in this conversation and stay present until we have found a way to honor this.”

At the coalitions Juneteenth state Del. Jheanelle Wilkins (D-Dist. 20), chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, and state Sen. Will Smith (D-Dist. 20) made appearances.


The multi-generational crowd of faith leaders, Walt Whitman High School students, coalition supporters and county residents stopping by to catch the celebration, joined outside of the McDonald’s on River Road in Bethesda, which is directly adjacent to Parcel 242.

A shrine made by coalition members was set out with food, water and candles to honor the spirits of their ancestors. Credit: Elia Griffin

The Juneteenth celebration began with a libation ceremony, a ritual of pouring liquid as an offering to a spirit or soul of person who is deceased. While performing the ritual, coalition members and other residents walked to the microphone and said the names of ancestors and loved ones who had passed as long ago as 1903 and recently as 2022.

There was also a shrine set up by coalition members with images of their ancestors, cut-up watermelon, pink roses, candles and a cup of water, placed as offerings to their spirits on the historic day.


Attendees danced, watched a drum circle and spoken word performance by Evergreen Productions, and purchased books about African and Black history and historical figures. Children’s faces were adorned with pink and purple butterflies.

“Juneteenth means that we survived. That means that we survived a holocaust. We survived genocide. We survived everything that was thrown at us, and we are still here,” coalition President Coleman-Adebayo said at the celebration.

“We’re fighting. And we need more fighters. Because we are up against multimillion-dollar corporations, up against Montgomery County itself, against the County Council. We’re up against power. And if we don’t stay together, we cannot win,” she said. “But the good news is, if we stay together, the people always win.”