The crossroads of my Jewish heritage and a buried black cemetery can be found in a cemetery in Bethesda, Maryland. I found this burial ground by following the guideposts of my life, the Torah, and my family history.
One part of the Torah that resonates with me is Exodus 23:9: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” This passage recalls the oppression of my own people, and calls me to work with others who are oppressed.
As for my family history, my paternal grandparents and their three children, my future uncles, arrived in this country in 1911. They fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe. My great-grandparents stayed behind. But finding their graves, likely somewhere on the Russian-Polish border, would be a futile endeavor due to the Cossacks’s desecration of that area’s Jewish towns and cemeteries. Such desecration is an oppression that attempts to bury a people’s history.
So it was in 2017 that my family history and the Torah drew my attention to the plight of the Bethesda African Cemetery on River Road. In the late 1950s, atop the cemetery land, contractors began constructing a parking lot for a nearby apartment building. Witnesses report that this construction process unearthed human remains. By the 1960s, asphalt covered that graveyard. In 2017, developers planned to obscure this burial ground further by building a parking garage on that land.
The similarities between the destruction of the Bethesda African Cemetery and that of Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe struck me. First, the Bethesda graveyard served a particular community, just as cemeteries in Eastern Europe served certain Jewish communities. Second, as during the pogroms, desecration of the Bethesda cemetery was concurrent with the eradication of the community it served.
That community was River Road, a black neighborhood founded shortly after the Civil War. Located in what is now the Westbard area of Bethesda, River Road became a society of farms, businesses, and eventually, in the language of segregated Montgomery County, Maryland, at that time, a “colored” school for children. But starting in the mid-1900s, River Road inhabitants experienced pressure from developers to sell their land. Former resident Harvey Matthews says that white developers “destroyed our ability to pass on our land from one generation to the next.” The community dispersed as developers changed that area into the high-rent, predominantly white Westbard neighborhood. Today, only one institution from River Road remains: Macedonia Baptist Church.
Activists from the church consider the cemetery land sacred. They have formed the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition, composed of secular and faith organization members. Their goal is to create a memorial and museum on that land in order to commemorate the burial ground and the River Road community. Coalition participants have been testifying and demonstrating at public meetings of the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission. The commission, which had leased the land from a developer, recently bought the site that includes the cemetery. Despite negotiations between both parties, the commission has never offered a written agreement for the coalition’s memorial efforts.
So, are the commission’s board and staff members Cossacks? Such an argument is exaggerated, surely. As their website points out, they provide affordable housing to many families in Montgomery County. They offer paid internships and scholarships. Nevertheless, in their resistance to agree to the coalition’s memorial plans, the commission associates are colluding with past developers who buried black history, as surely as Cossacks buried my Jewish family’s history.
My family history and the Torah call me to recognize the impact that the commission has had on those who hold the Bethesda African Cemetery land sacred. I know, from my uncles’ stories, how oppressive burying a people’s history is. Developers’s pressure experienced by River Road residents forced them to flee their homes, just as the Cossacks forced my grandparents and their children to flee theirs. I can do nothing about the community from which my grandparents came, or about the cemetery that was there. But I can stand in solidarity with Macedonia Baptist Church and work to memorialize their buried cemetery and long-gone community.
By Carol B. Ehrlich
Carol B. Ehrlich is a writer based in the Greater Washington area. She is active with the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition and Showing Up for Racial Justice Montgomery County (SURJ MOCO).