A Maryland judge stepped in to stop the sale of an apartment complex after discovering Black people were buried underneath the parking lot.
A group of Bethesda community members banded together to submit "overwhelming evidence" that a portion of the Westwood Tower was used as a burial site for freed Black people and their descendants. As a result, Judge Karla Smith took action to halt the complex's sale.
According to NBC News, Smith said "many bodies likely remain on the property," ruling in favor of the community coalition in the case. "The Court cannot ignore that Plaintiffs, African Americans, are seeking to preserve the memory of their relatives and those whom they share a cultural affiliation," Smith wrote in her 50-page ruling. "Nor can the Court ignore that as early as the 1930s when construction began in the River Road community, the deceased have been forgotten, forsake and their final resting places destroyed or, at a minimum, desecrated."
Westwood Tower was in the middle of being sold by the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission to local investment firm, Charger Ventures, for $50 million. The sale received public interest, prompting the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition to file a lawsuit to halt the sale, citing the existence of Moses Cemetery –– a Black gravesite dating back to the early 1900s –– that was ultimately paved over in the 1960s when Westwood was constructed.
The cemetery was a part of the Black community in Bethesda, known as the River Road area that flourished before Black families were pushed out by developers –– a familiar story in Black American history.
One of the witnesses called to testify in the case was Harvey Matthews –– one of the last living survivors from the River Road community.
"They were finding body parts –– arms, legs," Matthews, who is in his 70s, testified about the construction of Westwood Tower. He added that when he was a boy, he saw an estimated 200 grave markers, and that if construction workers were to start digging up the parking lot right now, "body parts will jump up at you like popcorn."
The Commission said Tuesday (October 26) that it's planning legal action to continue the sale.