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The Black cemetery lost in white suburbia

The full episode transcript for Bethesda’s Lost Colony.

Transcript

Into America

Bethesda's Lost Colony

Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: One of the first questions that everyone asked me is what is this little Black church doing in the middle of downtown Bethesda? And I often say, you're asking the wrong question. The question is: what are you doing here? This church has been here for 102 years.

Trymaine Lee: If you drive northwest out of Washington, D.C., after about 30 minutes, you get to Bethesda, Maryland, a very wealthy, very white suburb of about 70,000 people. There are art galleries and shopping centers, and the city is lush and full of nature with trees, greenways and trickling creeks.

And as you turn onto a busy street called River Road, if you're not looking closely, you could easily miss a tiny white building sitting in the shadow of a high-rise apartment building, the Macedonia Baptist Church.

Coleman-Adebayo: So, this is also known as the little church on top of a hill.

Lee: Marsha Coleman-Adebayo is originally from Detroit but she's now the First Lady of Macedonia. Her husband, Reverend Segun Adebayo, is the church's pastor.

Next door is a drive through Bank of America, storage facilities, and gas stations lying on both sides of the street along with more apartments and condos reaching high into the sky. The church looks like a relic from another time because it is.

Coleman-Adebayo: This church has been the center of the community. Not only, it's a spiritual center, it's the life of this community.

Lee: Bethesda is less than five percent Black and it's the only Black church in the city. Bethesda's always been mostly white but not long ago before violence and gentrification drove Black people out. River Road was at the heart of a thriving Black community.

Coleman-Adebayo: So, this church was situated after emancipation and all-white enclave and they would come together at this place for comfort and for love and community.

Lee: Macedonia Baptist Church is pretty small. It has about 70 loyal members, most of whom moved away over the years but still come back to River Road for services. Marsha's husband became pastor here seven years ago.

Coleman-Adebayo: And my first responsibility as a First Lady was to go to a meeting at the Montgomery County Parks and Planning Commission and their goal was for me to sign what they call a sector plan.

Lee: In the spring of 2016, representatives from the Montgomery County Planning Commission were holding a series of meetings with local community groups trying to get their buy-in on a pretty radical idea, a new vision for the neighborhood, including zoning changes that would allow for lucrative development opportunities. Marsha was still a brand-new member of the community, and she felt a little out of her depth.

Coleman-Adebayo: And so, I'm sitting at this meeting, I am not from this area, I'm actually from Detroit, Michigan. And so, I didn't really have the history of this area and they're explaining to me why I should sign this on behalf of the church.

Lee: Then at one point, the tone of the meeting shifted.

Coleman-Adebayo: And as they're describing how there's a rumor, a myth that some Black people could be buried somewhere in this area, that it was, I think the word they kept using was, you know, is alleged, that there's some Black people who used to live in that area.

Lee: The representative was talking about some land, roughly the size of a football field not far from the church. Decades earlier, it had been partially paved over to make a parking lot for an apartment building. The rest was still an overgrown patch of land.

Marsha was shocked. There could be a historic Black cemetery with connections to her church, maybe even with the ancestors of her congregation laying under some nondescript patch of brush and asphalt. Marsha remembers the representative who mentioned it seemed to downplay the possibility.

Coleman-Adebayo: But sitting next to me was a man named Harvey Matthews.

Harvey Matthews: So, while I was in that particular meeting, the subject came up. Do you have any comments, have anything to say?

Lee: Harvey Matthews, who was born in Bethesda in 1944 and raised right here in River Road when it was a small but prosperous Black community, certainly had something to say.

Coleman-Adebayo: Harvey Matthews raised his hand very politely and said, excuse me, Madam, that’s not an alleged cemetery.

Matthews: I don't know where you gather your information from, but you cannot stand here and tell me, born and raised there on River Road, and you would stand there and tell me, you alleged that there's a cemetery there them clay hills (ph). You cannot tell me that. Sir, I lived in it, I played in it, the cemetery was there.

Lee: When Harvey was a kid playing in the grassy area around the cemetery, it was just common knowledge that Black folks were buried there.

Matthews: So, you cannot say and tell me that was alleged.

Lee: Harvey was forcing the planning commission to look at something he got a sense they wanted to turn away from, that in the early 20th century, this was a cemetery and some of those remains could still be there.

The existence of these remains on this land would make it much more difficult to develop one. Marsha remembers sensing their unease.

Coleman-Adebayo: I worked in the federal government for 18 years. So, I'm very in tuned with the way people sort of exchanged glances. And when I saw the bureaucrats all exchanging glances, I sat back and I said, excuse me, can you tell me where the members of my church are now buried? And they said, oh, we'll, we're not really sure. And I said, okay, then we have a crime scene on our hands. If you don't know where those bodies are located, then we have a crime scene. At that point, the meeting broke up and they said, I don't think we want to talk about this anymore.

Lee: In an email to us, the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission acknowledged that the land was at one point a cemetery. What's in dispute is whether or not there are still remains there. The county saw this land as a valuable asset potentially worth millions of dollars and part of their plan to remake the neighborhood in tandem with developers. But it had a different kind of value to Harvey Matthews and other Black people with roots on River Road. Marsha joined the fight.

Coleman-Adebayo: I determined that I would do everything in my power to stop the atrocity that's occurring here on River Road.

Lee: Marsha didn't know it yet, but that meeting was the start of an all-encompassing legal battle with local government over the future of those old cemetery grounds.

Coleman-Adebayo: And so, I started organizing and I started with the churches, and I started with civic organizations, and then I started with everyone who would listen to me and I, literally, it became like an obsession.

Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee and this is "Into America."

Today, the story of how a tiny Black church is taking on one of the wealthiest counties in the country to reclaim an old burial ground, one of the only remaining connections that congregants have left to their once thriving community.

Matthews: Old Black community are loving, devoted, dedicated community. They'll have all that taken away.

Coleman-Adebayo: If the courts rule against us, it will be open season on Black land.

Lee: So, to describe this, so, obviously, right now it's a little overgrown. There's some asphalt here. But what did this look like when you were growing up?

Matthews: This was a gravel road right back again (ph), going up to Mr. Woostham's (ph) house, Mr. River's (ph) house, and Mr. Doors (ph) --

Lee: Mr. Harvey Matthews and I are standing in the parking lot of the Westwood Apartments Towers where the Moses Macedonia African Cemetery used to be. He still remembers what it looked like before the land was paved over.

Matthews: It was three houses up on top of a steep hill, right, this all the way was a steep hill. And you went across a wooden bridge here, then we went up there, cut in to the cemetery on this side and that gravel road came by straight down beside the McDonald's, where the McDonald's is, but it wasn’t no McDonald's back in the day. It was Roy Rogers. It was Roy Rogers back in the day, then it came later on and converted into McDonald's, what you had there now. But this all the way was a gravel road.

Lee: The asphalt gently slopes down to an overgrown creek area which all seems to be part of the cemetery. A high-rise apartment tower built in the late '60s looms over all of this. We're just a couple blocks from the church but because of the busy intersections, construction sites and finished off (ph) areas near the parking lot, you can't walk there directly. Harvey gestures over to some bushes that seemed to be especially green and lush.

Matthews: We had some people coming there, surveyed the land and they told us, and let me tell you something, you see that hill right there? They say if I go over and expose that hill right there, what you're seeing is human remains that’s growing there. He said that’s what's keeping it so green and so fertilized and whatnot, it's because that’s what that is. And he said, now, if you go over and explore that, then that’s what you'll find.

Lee: The bones of the ancestors are still nourishing the soil. The Macedonia Baptist Church and what's left of the cemetery are all that remains of the once flourishing Black community here on River Road.

And this was a two-lane --

Matthews: A two-lane highway, not four like you see now. It's just two lanes, north and south.

Lee: Wow. Harvey and I have gone a couple minutes down River Road to where his childhood home used to stand. Now, it's just another parking lot. This one for a Whole Foods grocery store.

So, this was all your family property. Your yard was here in the steps?

Matthews: Yeah. Yeah.

Lee: And this tree --

Matthews: That tree is the one that my mom and my dad planted right there when I was about nine years old.

Lee: Whole Foods customers walk by the tall sycamore every day not knowing it was planted by the Black family that used to call this place home. Harvey's father would record his kids' heights every year on this very tree.

And he used to measure your height with this?

Matthews: Yeah.

Lee: Wow. It's hard to picture now but this parking lot that is filled with nice cars and SUVs used to be a farm.

Matthews: And I was back here where the barn was, where we kept the horses. Back in my day, I kept these dogs, and these pigeons and all, and like in that corner of the yard when, you know, then we had a racoon that my dad had trained, it could do anything.

Lee: A racoon?

Matthews: Yeah, the racoon would do anything.

Lee: That sounds (ph) real country.

Matthews: Yeah. He had it well trained. Yeah. Yeah. He had him well trained.

Lee: Harvey grew up attending the Macedonia Baptist Church and he takes me aside to tell me more about the River Road of his childhood when this area still felt like a countryside with about 60 homes in a tight-knit neighborhood.

Matthews: Growing up, there was a bit wealthy community, a whole lot of activity was going almost in the community between the Blacks that lived there. The church was our main focus point. It was a very religious community.

Within the community, and the surrounding community, you have an uncle or someone and they built this church that we're sitting in right here today because it was a family of them, and that’s what they did.

Lee: Was it a good childhood?

Matthews: Yeah. It's a good childhood. We didn’t have, like I say, dull moments or we're just dragged along and whatnot. But there wasn't no knockdown and drag out. Everybody got along and mostly everybody, you have some sort of garden or something that you might have had tomatoes, somebody else might have had cabbage, kale, or something else. And we'd swap back and forth. Somebody might have been raising hogs. They'd slaughter the hogs, and you'd separate the meat, spread the meat around and whatnot.

Everybody had good Thanksgivings and good Christmas, especially Thanksgiving because that was a big feasting time, and all the kids looked forward to that.

Lee: But River Road wasn't totally rural. The community was close enough to Washington, D.C. that a lot of the men commuted into the city, working construction jobs in the nation's capital.

Matthews: They used to be picked up by a train and trolley cars and carried into Washington, D.C. because most of the Black men on River Road, anywhere from 25 to maybe 60 years old, they worked at the White House and building the bomb shelters at the White House.

But River Road wasn’t a shantytown or nothing like that. Some folks had good homes in River Road, in the community.

Lee: This was a prosperous Black community.

Matthews: Yeah. Yeah. You know, I think ours (ph) was one of the best. Yeah. I think ours (ph) was one of the best.

Lee: But the late '50s ushered in the era of urban renewal. Across the country, white-dominated governments, using the excuse of progress and modernization, destroyed and displaced countless Black communities. River Road, with its location in wealthy white Bethesda, was a prime target.

Matthews: When corporate people came in and corporatized River Road and started, I guess, developers came in, started stealing the Blacks from their homes and drive them away from their homes. And then as they did that, the community got smaller and smaller.

Lee: White developers bought homes and properties only to tear them down to make way for freeways and shopping centers. Around the same time, the county passed a law requiring that every house have indoor plumbing. This led to further displacement because many residents of River Road didn't have the money to update their homes. That's when developers swooped in with an offer. But Harvey remembers those deals weren't often fair.

Matthews: The developers came in, flashed that dollar around a little bit and told the people, you know, that they got right of way from your property so you might want to sell to me and I'll give you a good dollar for your property. Maybe a third of them might have got that, but the rest of them, they got the shaft (ph).

Lee: Harvey told me that developers often targeted the elders of the community and sometimes, used shady tactics to separate people from their land.

Matthews: They will come in and get the elder man that owned the property and have property, you know, and feed them something to drink, get them kind of intoxicated, put a piece of paper in their face and say, well, you know, you need to sign this X right here, you know, and I'm going to take care of you for life. You always have a home here. Thirty days later, they will come back and say, you know what, a new man came and he wants this property. I can't maintain it anymore for you. You know, you would have to leave. And I’ll give you, you know, 30 days, 60 days or something, you know, that you had to be gone.

So, every time something went down, it didn’t get, it was back up and didn’t no one else come in town and moved in it. They destroyed it and they built what you see right here now.

Lee: So, by day, developers were coming by trying to snatch up land on River Road and at night, there was another force driving people out, the Ku Klux Klan. Harvey remembers when the KKK would come to his family's house which was often targeted because it was the first home on the road. Usually, the white vigilantes call them names or threw things at the house from a distance. But sometimes, it was much worse.

Matthews: I see my dad and my granddad, them jogged out through the yard by the Klan. I heard they tail beat and heard my mother screaming in the back, Lord, please, don’t let them kill my husband. You know, I can still hear that sometimes in the midnight now. I haven't forgotten that.

Lee: These memories still give him nightmares.

Matthews: The Klan was hell. You know, and the fact is, I don’t have to go and see roots or see this or see that, I tell anybody, where would I go? You don’t need to show me no motion picture about the Klan. I lived with the Klan.

Lee: His parents tried to hold out but the violence and pressure were too much.

Matthews: My family was one of the last three families to leave River Road and my family left River Road in 1959 and that’s where my grandad and my dad, they always said it was stolen.

Lee: Harvey and his family had to move and they ended up in D.C. But Harvey stay connected to the area. He continued to attend the Macedonia Baptist Church and for decades, he worked along River Road.

From his job at a service station, he watched as his neighbors' old houses were torn down. The road widened and new construction transformed farmland into suburbia.

And Harvey remembers, in the mid-1960s, when men began to work on the lot next to the new apartment building, at a time, he was in his early 20s.

Matthews: They started construction. I was right there to see the construction and I thought, wait a minute, what are they doing now. They say, well, shorty, they're going to put some over there and they're going to dig up the cemetery and pave more parking lot for the Westwood Tower. You know, my thinking, well, man, they can't do that. How they going to do that? Them bodies are still there.

Lee: Harvey couldn't believe it. The cemetery holding the ancestors of River Road was being turned into a parking lot. Harvey says he watched as workers dug through this sacred ground. Sometimes, he says, they would ring a bell indicating they had found human remains.

Matthews: And when they rung that bell, all work that was going on stop and they would take burlap brown sacks and gather the body parts and put them in the ground in sacks and haul them away, with the owner of the property and the priest, and dispose of them in Potomac River. The priest used to say a few words or not, dispose those body parts in the river.

Lee: Hold on, they were digging up a cemetery --

Matthews: Yeah.

Lee: -- of people from this community and they're dumping them in the river?

Matthews: Yes.

Lee: That sounds insane. That sounds crazy.

Matthews: Yeah. Well, just like we say, they would feed then rob us. They stole basically their land from the property owners of River Road. But when they got on to that cemetery, it became more so a sentimental thing and more so a personal thing.

Lee: Well, what's the reaction? When you y'all are hearing this, this is your community. I know the community at that point had changed a lot, so I don’t how many, you know, people from back in the day were still there. But when you're hearing this, what was your reaction and what could you all do?

Matthews: Pretty much, you can't do nothing within Montgomery County where they have counsel and their head honchos and whatnot because they not going to hear it that this was going on. They not going to hear it. So, what are you going to resolve (ph) about that? So, there's that who do you turn to? Who do you go to?

Lee: The results of urban renewal and white violence seemed obvious in Bethesda today. The city is 79 percent white and less than five percent Black. In 2022, it was listed as one of the 25 richest cities in the country with an average cost of a home estimated at more than $1.1 million. These forces almost completely erased the River Road community and without people like Harvey, it might have been totally forgotten.

Matthews: And that's why I call it the Lost Community, the Lost Colony, and Lily White Bethesda. Where did this happen at? This happened in Lily White Bethesda.

Lee: That's why the Moses Macedonia African Cemetery is so important and why Harvey won't stand by as its further desecrated. So, at 78 years old, somebody would say, Mr. Matthews, you go sit down somewhere. But you're not sitting down. You're still at this.

Matthews: No.

Lee: You're not going to rest.

Matthews: Nope. What's in here. It's not just coming out of here. It's in here. It's in my heart and what I have lived, what I have taught. And what I have seen is that our (ph) elders are going on glory, they were (ph) in that was in that cemetery that they didn't have the right to disturb. They should have the right to remain at peace with the Lord in their resting place.

And that’s not happening because, I'll tell you and tell the world, they are still over there on that red clay (ph) hill in that ground.

Lee: When we come back, the fight to save the remnants of Moses Macedonia African Cemetery. Stick with us.

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Coleman-Adebayo: There's a pet cemetery about five miles away and you would think you were in Arlington National Cemetery. Five miles away, you have Black people who are buried under a parking lot.

Lee: When Marsha learned about the existence of the old Black cemetery near her church, she was outraged.

Coleman-Adebayo: And it's a story that Montgomery County does not want anyone to know about because this is Bethesda. This is one of the richest counties in the world, not in the United States, in the world.

Lee: Since that first meeting with the planning commission in 2016, when Harvey Matthews stood up and told his story, Marsha realized it would be up to Macedonia Baptist Church to protect this land.

The county had big visions for rezoning and developing the neighborhood. At that time, a private real estate investment company called Equity One owned the land. So, the county and the company began working together in a public-private partnership. Marsha and the church asked the county to slow this process down until they could learn more about the cemetery and where human remains might lie.

Coleman-Adebayo: For the record, our community asked for this hearing to be rescheduled.

Lee: This is from a public meeting of the Montgomery Parks and Planning Commission in February of 2017. At that time and against the wishes of the church, the county was moving forward with their rezoning plan.

Coleman-Adebayo: Where the cemetery is and that the cemetery is are not in question. The only compelling question about the cemetery is this, will you honor its sanctity or has the torch been passed from the original officials who countenance is desecration so that the only vestiges of this once thriving African center is the Macedonia Baptist Church and the surviving descendants who can point to the parking lot and say, dig here.

Lee: Harvey also spoke at this meeting.

Matthews: I grew up in River Road in the 1950s. My home was located in front where it's currently, the Whole Foods strip mall.

Lee: He was dismayed to hear that Equity One, the landowner, was considering to turn the parking lot into a multi-storey garage.

Matthews: Our community is disturbed that Equity One would like to build a garage on top of already descendants, a parking lot of our ancestors. Enough is enough.

Lee: After Marsha and Harvey, another man who grew up on River Road came forward to share his story.

Archival Recording: If I missed anybody now, it would be the time to say so. I don’t see anybody else. Yes, sir? Come on up.

Lee: And he got right to the heart of the issue.

Ronald Cunningham: My name is Ronald Cunningham and my address used to be River Road and Clipper Lane. I may get emotional because this is very emotional for me.

Through the history of my family, I know about that graveyard. That graveyard is there. Is that a spot that you can say is in limbo? It's not in limbo. It's not a spot that’s in cyberspace. That’s a spot that's right here on Earth that we walked on, and we have, me, Harvey, and my family, played and walked in.

Lee: Now, the county did accept that a cemetery existed in this area at some point. The question was whether there were still human remains there.

So, whilst the county continued their work, there was a compromise between the county, the church and Equity One. In early 2017, Equity One hired an outside archaeological firm called The Ottery Group to take a closer look. The Ottery Group didn't do any physical digging, just historical research. When they released their report in July 2017, members of the church felt vindicated.

Coleman-Adebayo: They talked about the community on River Road. They talked about how it was decimated. They talked about the community across the street, the cemetery. They told the truth.

Lee: The report said that this land was a formal cemetery for Black residents of River Road between the 1910s and 1940s and it's likely that it was a burial ground as far back at the time of enslavement. The land was sold to developers in the late 1950s.

As construction on the apartment towers took place over the next decade, workers reported finding skeletal remains. And the report concluded that, quote, "It is improbable that the cemetery was completely effaced nor is there evidence that the cemetery was formally moved." That's a very jargon heavy way of saying that the remains might still be in the ground.

Harvey says he knows for sure, and he has a story to prove it. When Harvey was a young man, working at the service station, one of the men working on the new apartment building stopped by.

Matthews: So, that one evening, we were already at the service station, a guy that’s playing cards and drinking and whatnot, the bulldozer operator came over.

Lee: The bulldozer operator said he was tired of halting work every time they find remains.

Matthews: He says, so now, tomorrow when I come here, I'm going to dig me a big trench, I'm going to dig me a big trench, and I'm going to take all this old graveyard stuff and I'm going to push it into this trench. And then I'm going to cover it over, going to (ph) fill it with dirt. Then we're going to pour asphalt on it and make the parking lot to that high-rise building.

Lee: Harvey believes the man followed through, pushed the remains into a trench and paved it over to make the parking lot that’s at the center of this fight.

Michael Blakey: It's clear that there are remains, how many and how large an area, you know, they comprise remains unclear.

Lee: Dr. Michael Blakey is a Professor of Anthropology and Africana studies at William & Mary. He's a leading expert of African and African American burials and he's helped Macedonia Baptist navigate this process. He summarizes the report like this.

Blakey: So, it is likely that human remains is still there that the cemetery is still partly intact because the construction workers in the past did encounter human remains.

Lee: The report wrote that no further ground disturbances should take place without a thorough program for consultation, input and collaboration with descendants and other stakeholder communities.

And Dr. Blakey, who talked to The Ottery Group, said the report also stressed the need for further investigation especially around where exactly the cemetery used to be.

Blakey: And The Ottery Group's proposal recommended delineation. That means identifying the boundaries of the cemetery. It had been disturbed. It's not clear where all the remains are, where the boundaries end, and I think that's really the big problem right now. Montgomery County did not pursue that advice.

Lee: Not only did the county not pursue any additional investigation. It kept moving forward with its plans to develop that land. We asked the planning commission why the county did not pursue delineating the cemetery boundaries as the report recommended. They told us, quote, "The planning board and planning department continued to work on getting facts about the cemetery and advancing the effort to undertake an unbiased professional archaeological study of the site."

In 2018, the county's Housing Opportunities Commission bought the Westwood Towers and the adjacent parking lot from Equity One for $20 million. The following year, Marsha, Harvey, and other church members decided that they were going to protect the cemetery. They needed their own formal organization.

Coleman-Adebayo: Of course, the organization starts right here at Macedonia Baptist Church and Social Justice Ministry that I head up. So, we started out with 10 people downstairs and we started growing, we started growing.

Lee: The Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition had its first big test in 2021 when Montgomery County then decided to take Westwood Towers, which they bought back from Equity One and sell it to another developer for $51 million. That's $31 million more than they paid for the same property just three years earlier.

Coleman-Adebayo: So, we took them to court for preliminary injunction.

Lee: Harvey Matthews and several other River Road descendants sued the county's housing agency. They pointed to a Maryland law that required their relatives be notified if the cemetery is sold.

According to legal documents we reviewed, the county argued that there was no definitive proof that there were still human remains on that plot of land because the report only said there could be. But the judge didn't buy it.

In her opinion, Judge Karla N. Smith wrote that the community was, quote, "seeking to preserve the memory of their relatives and those with whom they share a cultural affiliation." And she said that the court couldn’t ignore that the deceased have been forgotten, forsaken, and their final resting place is destroyed. The Judge granted an injunction halting the sale of the land.

So, the injunction was a win, right?

Coleman-Adebayo: Yes. No question.

Lee: They cannot sell it.

Coleman-Adebayo: That’s right.

Lee: But that cemetery is still buried under --

Coleman-Adebayo: That’s right.

Lee: -- a parking lot.

Coleman-Adebayo: Right.

Lee: And so, is there another step to this battle? What happens next? I mean because they're still not being respected. There's still asphalt laid over --

Coleman-Adebayo: That’s right.

Lee: -- those grounds.

Coleman-Adebayo: These are the people that built Bethesda. These are the people that built this church. These are the people that built the River Road that you drove down. These are the people that built Bradley Boulevard. These are the people who built the bunkers under the White House.

These are human beings that we have decided are trash that are underneath the parking lot. So, we, first of all, want the land transfer to the church because it's clear that Montgomery County has no respect for our ancestors. They’ve made that abundantly clear.

So, we've asked them to transfer the land to the only remaining institution left, which is Macedonia Baptist Church. Allow us to take care of our ancestors. We love them.

Lee: Harvey says if the church gets the land, they know exactly what they're going to do with it.

Matthews: And our intention, as to what we want to do with the property, how we want to construct it, we want a museum built there. We want a memorial built there. We want something there in a structure.

Like I said (ph), with my ancestors and my parents (inaudible), they should have some dedication or something down there showing that this was a Black community.

Lee: But the county isn't ready to give up. There are millions of dollars in the line.

Coleman-Adebayo: So, now, the Housing Opportunities Commission is appealing this decision.

Lee: In October, Montgomery County's housing agency filed a motion to reverse the injunction and move forward with the sale of the property. When we reached out to the agency, they told us they couldn't comment due to the ongoing legal case. But Marsha isn't giving up either.

Coleman-Adebayo: So, we're fighting and as you can tell with Brother Harvey and other people, this is what we do now, and we intend to win this. And if the court decides against the people and makes the decision, there is nothing sacred about a burial ground, that it can be sold to the highest bidder and whoever buys it need not tell the family or the court, that takes us back about a century.

Lee: A decision is expected any day now. But Harvey is resolved to keep going no matter what.

Matthews: I'm one of the last, maybe seven, residents of River Road community still in the land that are living. And I will fight and fight with all I got to declare (ph) justice to be served. Give the church back what rightly belongs to them in their land there.

Lee: And while they wait, Marsha and Harvey do whatever they can to honor the ancestors of River Road.

Coleman-Adebayo: So, we're going to pour a libation to our ancestors. Okay. (Inaudible).

Lee: Back at the parking lot, I stood with Marsha and Harvey where the edge of the asphalt meets the wild overgrown stretch of brush. Marsha pulled out a small bottle of water and together, they performed a libation ceremony.

Coleman-Adebayo: It's important for us to ask for permission for us to be here. So, Brother Harvey will pour a libation.

Matthews: All right.

Coleman-Adebayo: So, Moses said, take off your shoes because the ground upon which you stand is holy ground.

And we recognize that the land that we're standing on right now is holy ground, that it was watered with the tears and blood of our ancestors. And so, we ask their permission for us to be here.

So, we'll call out some of the names of the people who are buried underneath our feet. So, we call out the name of Cora Butts.

Matthews: Ashay.

Coleman-Adebayo: We call out the name of Jeremiah Butts.

Matthews: Ashay.

Coleman-Adebayo: We call out the name of the Warren family.

Matthews: Ashay.

Coleman-Adebayo: We call out the name of the Brown family.

Matthews: Ashay.

Coleman-Adebayo: We call out the name of the Madison family.

Matthews: Ashay.

Coleman-Adebayo: We call out the name of the Matthews family.

Matthews: Ashay.

Coleman-Adebayo: We call out the name of all the African ancestors who have lived and died on River Road and who are buried in this sacred space. We have not forgotten you. We've not forgotten you. And we will fight every single day to make sure that you are remembered and you're respected. And you should know how much our community still loves you. Ashay.

Matthews: Ashay.

Lee: You can follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook using the handle, @intoamericapod or you can tweet me, @trymainelee. If you love "Into American" and you want to help us tell more important stories just like this one, please rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts or wherever you're listing right now. Your review helps other people find the show.

"Into America" is produced by Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Mike Brown, Aaron Dalton and Max Jacobs. Original music is by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Aisha Turner. Special thanks this week to Stefanie Cargill, along with Marc Marriott, Joe Martin and Tracy Reeves.

I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll see you next Thursday.

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