by David S. Rotenstein
One community in the Washington, D.C. suburbs is fighting to preserve a historic African American cemetery with significant ties to gentrification in two neighborhoods going back more than a century. Graded and buried beneath an asphalt-surfaced parking lot, the Moses Cemetery is one of the last surviving remnants of a historic Black community that once included a church, a school, and several dozen homes. The cemetery’s history and the contemporary efforts to have it recognized and protected from development offer a view into three displacement episodes between 1911 and 2017.
Drawn from documentary research, informant interviews, and participant observation, this essay briefly tells a story about the Moses Cemetery and the people who lived, died, and were displaced from two Washington neighborhoods: Tenleytown in the District of Columbia and River Road in neighboring Montgomery County, Maryland. African Americans developed both communities after the Civil War. Successive waves of twentieth-century suburbanization erased them and threaten to erase the remnants of their community: the cemetery.
My involvement in the actions by Bethesda, Maryland’s Macedonia Baptist Church began in the spring of 2017 when I was invited to participate in planning sessions for protests targeting Montgomery County government bodies: the Planning Board, County Council, the County Executive, and the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission.
This is their story.
A Serial Displacement Primer
Displacement is a key part of most accepted definitions of gentrification. I prefer to define gentrification as the conversion of space for increasingly wealthier users who ultimately replace earlier, poorer residents. It occurs in previously disinvested spaces and where upgrading changes “the essential character and flavor” of a neighborhood. As poorer people are pushed out of these refurbished spaces, their communities and social networks disintegrate.
The psychologist Mindy Thompson Fullilove coined the phrase “root shock” to describe displacement’s psychological and social impacts, defining the process in her 2004 pathbreaking book of the same name. Root shock is “the traumatic stress reaction to the destruction of all or part of one’s emotional ecosystem.” In redeveloped, retrofitted, and renewed spaces, root shock is multigenerational, the product of serial displacement: people are repeatedly and coercively driven from their homes by external forces.
In more than half a century of sociological and historical analyses of displacement by urban renewal and gentrification, researchers have expanded our understanding of displacement from the physical removal of people from spaces to include indirect or social and cultural displacement. We now better understand the changes in individuals and social relations as root shock. Development schemes often increase alienation; deprive members of familiar people, buildings, businesses, and spaces; and “they replac[e]… a group’s everyday way of life in the neighborhood with that of another.” Transforming the space a community inhabits causes it to unravel.
Thus far, scholars of displacement have focused on living people as well as their material worlds and intangible culture: the arts, religious communities, etc. I propose further expanding displacement to include the archaeological resources in gentrifying spaces, especially cemeteries. As properties are converted for higher and better uses, spaces that appear abandoned and neglected are prime targets for redevelopment. A poor community’s graves are the most vulnerable because they lack durable permanent stone markers and there are few enduring ties to living people because the community’s living residents have already been displaced. This type of displacement is pronounced in communities where the ancestors of others and their graves become fictive kin to descendant communities.
People who lived in communities destroyed by urban renewal and gentrification frequently frame their narratives about displacement as theft. They see their homes, businesses, and churches as stolen by capitalism. Spaces for the dead are among those stolen and erased.
Such is the case of the Moses Cemetery.
The First Displacement: Tenleytown to River Road
The Ancient United Order of Sons and Daughters, Brethren and Sisters of Moses was a Black fraternal organization with roots in 1870s rural Virginia. By the turn of the twentieth century, the secret society had spread throughout the eastern United States with lodges and cemeteries in the District of Columbia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York, and Maryland.
Several lodges were founded in Washington, including White’s Tabernacle No. 39 in 1881. Closely affiliated with the Rock Creek Baptist Church in the city’s Tenleytown neighborhood, the lodge purchased a rectangular tract where it established a cemetery. As real estate speculators bought former farms on Washington’s periphery, they drove up prices and attempted to displace African American homeowners and renters.
Blacks had lived in Tenleytown since Reconstruction. Developers who bought lots in what became known as Reno City (now Fort Reno Park) attached racially restrictive covenants prohibiting African Americans from buying and renting. North of Reno City, the Chevy Chase Land Company starting in the 1890s had consolidated former farms to create restricted residential suburbs in Washington and across the line in neighboring Maryland. The result of this earlier generation of gentrification was a forced-exodus of African Americans from their communities.
Suburbanization pushed Tenleytown’s African Americans farther out to the Maryland state line and into Montgomery County. In 1911, White’s Tabernacle bought 1.04 acres in Bethesda’s River Road community where it planned to relocate the 192 Tenleytown graves.
River Road links rural farms with Washington’s urban core. The community there was one of several dozen nineteenth-century African American hamlets distributed throughout Montgomery County. Families with such names as Clipper, Dorsey, Gray, Botts, and Matthews bought small parcels and built modest homes. They worked in area quarries and in Washington’s growing construction industry. In 1872, Montgomery County created a separate school system for Blacks. After more than 20 years of lobbying by residents for a school in their community, county officials in 1912 established the River Road Colored School.
Longtime white residents in the River Road corridor resisted the Moses Order’s efforts to relocate its cemetery. In 1911, shortly after the organization’s deed to the new property was recorded, landowners led by James H. Loughborough unsuccessfully petitioned Montgomery County leaders to block the proposed “cemetery … for colored persons from the District of Columbia.” The logic of segregation, it seems, applied even in death.
With its new property secured, all White’s Tabernacle needed was permission from the District of Columbia to disinter the bodies from the older cemetery. Though Washington’s municipal functions were managed by a board of commissioners, Congress controlled the governance of the District. A special act was required under District laws because the order was unable to identify all of the descendants of the people buried in the Tenleytown cemetery.
It took four years for the District’s commissioners to evaluate the Order’s request and approve it by transmitting reports to Congress thereby initiating the legislative process. Researchers have been unable to locate records documenting the disinterments. The former cemetery site lies beneath Washington’s Chevy Chase Parkway and homes built in the 1920s.
The Second Displacement: River Road Erased
Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, African Americans continued to be buried in the Moses Cemetery across the state line in Montgomery County. By the 1920s, several light industrial plants had been built along River Road in the vicinity of where the B&O Railroad’s Metropolitan Branch (built in 1892) crossed. During that decade, Washington real estate speculators began consolidating properties and subdividing them for new developments with names like Kenwood, which since 1929 had included restrictive covenants prohibiting chickens, livestock, and any people other than whites from living there. Also enveloping River Road’s African American homes, the Washington firms W.C. and A.N. Miller and the Montgomery County firm, the Loughborough Development Corporation, developed subdivisions that also explicitly excluded Jews from them.
As suburbia and industry were squeezing in on River Road, the small African American community and its cemetery suffered the same fate of Montgomery County’s other Black communities: there was no running water or sewerage, a basic infrastructure found in contemporaneous white residential areas. Add to that environmental racism the path that Willett Branch cut through the community (where it bisected the Moses Cemetery) from the urbanizing Bethesda to the north to the Little Falls Branch to the south.
By 1929, Willett Branch had become an open sewer and wealthy Chevy Chase residents were clamoring for Montgomery County to remediate the unhealthy conditions. The Willett Branch was so noxious that upstream from River Road, officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Animal Industry farm had to construct fences to keep cattle from drinking the water. “Above the point where it receives the sewage, Willett Creek is a clear-crystal stream of what appears to be pure water,” wrote the Washington Post in October 1929. “Below that point its odor can be detected by a keen nose for a distance of at least a quarter of a mile.” Besides the Moses Cemetery, some African American homes butted the stream and others were well within a quarter mile. The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission acquired right-of-way through the community and the cemetery to construct a sewer which was begun the following year.
After World War II, former farms and light industrial sites were redeveloped as new residential subdivisions and shopping centers. River Road’s African American residents began leaving as pressures mounted to redevelop the area. According to former resident Harvey Matthews, many residents were tricked into signing away their properties to developers.
“Washington Suburban came through and said that all the homes there that didn’t have running water and sewage system had to move,” Matthews said in November 2017. “And they gave ridiculous prices that it would cost you to have that done.”
Matthews also described specific ways developers got Black properties. He described episodes where developers plied property owners with liquor and then got them to sign legal instruments despite being illiterate. “Not being highly educated, some of them there, and they were mostly swindled out of the homes with big words and big ideas,” Matthews explained.
Matthews says his family left in 1959 and moved into Washington. Other African Americans, mainly renters in some of the single-family homes along River Road converted into apartments, stayed for another several years.
Ralph Wooden’s family moved to the nearby town of Somerset in the nineteenth century. He’s a white retired schoolteacher and his family has lived in the same house since the turn of the twentieth century.
Wooden was a teenager when the last African Americans left River Road. He told me about his friend Barry with whom he attended elementary school. Barry lived in one of the River Road “boarding houses,” according to Wooden.
Each day Barry and Wooden walked to school along the railroad tracks. By the time Wooden reached the ninth grade, Barry was gone. “There was a giant apartment house there and there was a girl — I think she was a ninth grader,” Wooden said.
The girl lived in an apartment building that to Wooden had suddenly appeared where Barry’s home had been. “That had been the Black community,” Wooden recalled. “So in just that amount of time, Barry’s home disappeared and the Black person who walked with us was replaced by a white person who walked with us.”
As the living Black bodies were disappearing from River Road, the ones buried in Moses Cemetery were abandoned in much the same way the first Moses Cemetery fell into disrepair and disuse. White’s Tabernacle sold the cemetery in 1958 and a decade later part of it was incorporated into a light industrial property. The other part was graded and surfaced for a parking lot next to a new mid-rise apartment building called Westwood Towers.
People working with the Macedonia church and who are affiliated with a community group organized to oppose new development proposed for the area have conducted extensive research into River Road and the cemetery’s history. They, along with planners working for the Montgomery County Planning Department, uncovered evidence that some of the bodies buried in the cemetery might have been haphazardly removed during construction activities. Other graves simply were scooped up by heavy machinery and dumped in a trench before the entire cemetery was converted into an asphalt-surfaced parking lot.
The Third Displacement: Retrofitting Suburbia
In 2014 the Montgomery County Planning Department began work on a new sector plan for the River Road area where the cemetery was established in 1911. Planners had rebranded the area “Westbard” in the 1980 when executing the agency’s oldest sector plan. More than 30 years later, planners returned to the community determined to retrofit the suburb.
By 2015 it had become clear to planners and to residents that a cemetery had once been located in an area slated for redevelopment in the new sector plan. Conflicting ideologies—i.e. Montgomery County leaders determined to retrofit Westbard and River Road’s African American community—clashed almost immediately over the cemetery site. Planners approached the cemetery issue cautiously, concerned that a large archaeological site with several hundred burials would derail Westbard’s retrofit.
The African American community and its allies in the Macedonia Baptist Church were outraged over the language planners and other county officials were using to describe the cemetery—that it was an “alleged cemetery.” For Montgomery County’s leaders, the only thing that will validate River Road’s descendant community’s claims that the parking lot has a cemetery sealed beneath it is an archaeological study “confirming” the presence of intact graves. This ethnocentric position denies African belief systems about graves and the dead. It also denies the substantial documentary record and eyewitness accounts from the twentieth century describing the cemetery.
Activists also were angry that the Westbard plans initially called for the construction of a new multi-story parking structure atop the cemetery. They informed Montgomery County leaders that they wanted the cemetery protected and preserved; that they wanted compensation for the historical racialized land use policies that resulted in the erasure of the River Road community; and, they wanted a permanent memorial or museum to tell their stories.
In early 2017, African American community members and local activists staged rallies and marches at the Macedonia church and the Moses Cemetery site. Organizers followed these up with demonstrations at Planning Board hearings, County Council meetings, and the monthly hearings held by the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission. The latter agency is the leaseholder for the apartment towers next to the cemetery site. A November 2017 rally attracted regional faith community leaders, including Rev. Walter Fauntroy (a 1960s civil rights leader who also served as Washington’s non-voting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives from 1971 to 1991), and a South African poet. Nanette Hunter, a descendant of one of the people (Cora Botts) buried in the cemetery in 1935, also spoke at the cemetery site.
Tying it all Together With Race, Public Policy, and History
Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr. was one of the speakers at the November rally. A New Orleans native displaced by Hurricane Katrina, the Hip Hop Caucus founder has lived in the Washington area since the storm. He recently moved to Bethesda and he told people at the rally how he learned about his new home’s history. He moved to a neighborhood called Bannockburn:
“I moved to Bannockburn and nice folks came with cakes and cookies which was cool because where I came from they didn’t get cakes and cookies. It was nice. And they told me about the history of Bannockburn. Said it used to be a golf course and went through the whole thing, it used to be this and that.”
Those were Yearwood’s new white neighbors. Then he began speaking with some longtime Montgomery County African American residents. They told him about Montgomery County under Jim Crow and the landmark desegregation protests at the Glen Echo amusement park:
“I ran into a brother like Brother Harvey [Matthews] who then told me the history of Glen Echo and he said that there were folks who when you were Black you couldn’t go to Glen Echo. And so even though my neighbors were very well-meaning, they told me their history alone. And so it would take these opportunities for us to have the real story.”
For River Road’s dispersed descendants, the Moses Cemetery is a rallying point for them to seize their history and to tell their own stories—Yearwood’s “real story”—about suburbanization in Washington and its suburbs.
“I’m so grateful to all of you for what you have done in picking up the fight on behalf of my ancestors,” Nanette Hunter said before breaking down in tears. “I’m here today to represent them, to represent my sisters and our kids and largely my mother.”
The Moses Cemetery is a vital and visceral link connecting the past, present, and future in two Washington area neighborhoods. It offers a valuable lesson in serial displacement and the long-term, inter-generational damage gentrification inflicts on people—alive and dead.
Developers have pushed African American residents out of D.C. area communities for decades. This process, by which wealthy whites acquire and repurpose Black communities, threatens the living as well as the dead. It is the embodiment of root shock—a destructive aspect of urban racial capitalism that destroys communities of color to the benefit wealthy white surburbanites. Though racial restrictive covenants are a thing of the past, must we really uproot the African American dead in the name of development? Are we really willing to call that progress?
David Rotenstein is a Silver Spring, Maryland, historian. He writes on gentrification, race, and history and is the proprietor of a small public history consulting practice focusing on urban and suburban history.
 Maureen Kennedy and Paul Leonard, “Dealing With Neighborhood Change: A Primer on Gentrification and Policy Choices” (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy, April 2001), http://www.brookings.edu/research/reports/2001/04/metropolitanpolicy; Jason Hackworth, “Postrecession Gentrification in New York City,” Urban Affairs Review 37, no. 6 (July 1, 2002): 815–43, https://doi.org/10.1177/107874037006003.
 Mindy Thompson Fullilove, Root Shock: How Tearing up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do about It, 1st ed (New York: One World/Ballantine Books, 2004), 11.
 Mindy Thompson Fullilove and Rodrick Wallace, “Serial Forced Displacement in American Cities, 1916–2010,” Journal of Urban Health : Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine 88, no. 3 (June 2011): 381–89, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11524-011-9585-2.
 M. Chernoff, “Social Displacement in a Renovating Neighborhood’s Commercial District: Atlanta,” in Back to the City: Issues in Neighborhood Renovation, ed. Shirley Bradway Laska and Daphne Spain, Pergamon Policy Studies on Urban Affairs (New York: Pergamon Press, 1980), 204–19; Rodney D. Green et al., “The Indirect Displacement Hypothesis: A Case Study in Washington, D.C.,” The Review of Black Political Economy, January 31, 2017, 1–22, https://doi.org/10.1007/s12114-016-9242-9; Richard E. Ocejo, “The Early Gentrifier: Weaving a Nostalgia Narrative on the Lower East Side,” City & Community 10, no. 3 (2011): 285–310, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-6040.2011.01372.x.
 Nina Mjagkij, ed., Organizing Black America: An Encyclopedia of African American Associations (New York: Garland, 2001), 218.
 “The Order of Moses Holds Annual Public Worship,” Broad Ax, April 18, 1914; “An Eloquent Divine,” Colored American, April 21, 1900; “Embraces Much Territory.,” The Washington Post, September 8, 1897.
 Nina Honemond Clarke and Lillian B Brown, History of the Black Public Schools of Montgomery County, Maryland, 1872-1961 (New York: Vantage Press, 1978); David Kathan, Amy Rispin, and L. Paige Whitley, “Tracing a Bethesda, Maryland, African American Community and Its Contested Cemetery,” Washington History 29, no. 2 (2017): 24–41.
 Montgomery Press, January 20, 1911.
 United States Commission on Civil Rights Civil Rights, ed., Hearings Before the United States Commission on Civil Rights. Housing (Washington: U.S. Govt. Print. Off, 1959), 411, https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001345608.
 William J. Wheatley, “Bethesda Brook Held to Be Menace,” Washington Evening Star, September 10, 1929.
 “Sewage Seen as Threat to Water Supply,” The Washington Post, October 22, 1930, sec. SPORTS, https://search.proquest.com/docview/150034026/abstract/C528644759F849CCPQ/9.
 Kathan, Rispin, and Whitley, “Tracing a Bethesda, Maryland, African American Community and Its Contested Cemetery.”
 “PlanWestbard: Retrofitting the Westbard Suburb,” Montgomery County Planning Department, accessed November 23, 2017, http://montgomeryplanning.org/planning/communities/area-1/planwestbard/ The concept of retrofitting suburbs derives from work by urbanists Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson who describe the process as “replacing less sustainable development patterns with more valuable, sustainable places”; Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson, Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs, Updated ed (Hoboken, N.J: Wiley, 2011), xxiii.
 For a discussion of the roles that cemeteries play in traditional African American communities, see Lynn Rainville, Hidden History: African American Cemeteries in Central Virginia (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014), 53–54.
 Rally organizers invited me to speak and I subsequently published my comments and photos from the event on my blog. David Rotenstein, “‘Black Lives Matter, Alive or Dead,’” History Sidebar (blog), November 13, 2017, http://blog.historian4hire.net/2017/11/13/black-lives-matter-alive-or-dead/.
 Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., Statement, Moses Cemetery Rally, November 12, 2017.
 United States. National Park Service, “A Summer of Change: The Civil Rights Story of Glen Echo Park – Glen Echo Park (U.S. National Park Service),” Glen Echo Park, accessed November 24, 2017, https://www.nps.gov/glec/learn/historyculture/summer-of-change.htm.
 Lennox, Moses Rally Statement.
 Nanette Hunter, Statement, Moses Cemetery Rally, November 12, 2017.
* * *
We here at The Activist History Review are always working to expand and develop our mission, vision, and goals for the future. These efforts sometimes necessitate a budget slightly larger than our own pockets. If you have enjoyed reading the content we host here on the site, please consider donating to our cause.