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Moses Cemetery Assessment

Bethesda, Maryland
The Ottery Group

Featured image above: Property map for Moses Cemetery from a 1917 atlas that also shows a county sewer line crossing the property.

In 2022 The Ottery Group presented testimony in Montgomery County Circuit Court based upon an investigation of an African American cemetery that was buried during the construction of an apartment tower in the River Road area of Bethesda, Maryland in ca. 1966-1968. The cemetery is associated with the 20th-century fraternal society known as White’s Tabernacle Number 39 Lodge of the Ancient Order of Sons and Daughters, Brothers and Sisters of Moses (Moses Cemetery).

Moses Cemetery was established in 1911 when White’s Tabernacle Number 39 Lodge was forced to relocate an existing cemetery in Washington, DC that had been in use since the 1880s. The lodge purchased land on River Road in 1911 to relocate the cemetery to an area outside of the nation’s capital, and continued to provide burials until the membership in the lodge closed the cemetery sometime prior to 1958, when the land containing the cemetery was sold. The Ottery Group carried out volumetric cut and fill analysis using published USGS topographic data and other archival sources, and determined that the cemetery was buried under a large amount of fill removed from a neighboring property during the construction of a commercial strip in 1958-1959. Then, during the construction of an apartment tower and parking lot on the property in 1966-1968, the area of the cemetery was graded. Oral history accounts acknowledge illicit removal of some human remains during construction of the apartment tower. Extensive archival research into county and state records, however, identified no evidence of formal removal and relocation of interments from the cemetery at any time.

Plans for the development of the land containing the cemetery, as part of the current sector plan produced by the county’s planning and zoning department, has created controversy and provoked activism from a coalition of cultural and religious leaders, academics, and environmental advocates. In the context of the most recent litigation over the cemetery, The Ottery Group’s archeological assessment of the cemetery was considered compelling evidence for the general integrity of the cemetery as a resting place for numerous individuals interred between 1911 and 1958, and communicated the importance of treating the site in a befitting way.