The Beltway’s role in dividing Gibson Grove might have remained a little-known legacy of 20th-century planning that often treated Black communities as the easiest path for new highways. But a Maryland State Highway Administration plan to widen the Beltway and add toll lanes — potentially requiring that some gravesites be moved — has raised new objections from local residents and historians who say a painful history shouldn’t be repeated.
District resident Diane Baxter said records she found while researching her family history show her great grandfather, James Coates, was buried in Moses Morningstar Cemetery in 1894. She has yet to find his grave.
“The idea of having to remove burials is devastating to me and my family,” said Baxter, 72. “We’re talking about human lives and a community and things that happened long before we were born. . . . Even though I don’t know where he is in that cemetery, he’s in there, somewhere.”
Some historians say expanding the Beltway into the private cemetery off Seven Locks Road would desecrate an important piece of African American history. Moreover, they say, doing so would perpetuate the racial injustice of building the highway through the community in the first place.
“All those burials there were a community, in life and in death,” said Paige Whitley, an independent researcher who has studied Gibson Grove’s history. “The thought of separating someone from that community, even in death, bothers me.”
Maryland highway officials said they’re trying to find ways to avoid the cemetery altogether and, if not, then reduce the harm caused to it.
Julie M. Schablitsky, chief archaeologist for the Maryland State Highway Administration, said governments now pay closer attention to historical sites than when the Beltway was designed and built in the 1950s and early 1960s. Federal and state laws passed since then require the agency to consider the potential impact on historical cemeteries, buildings, bridges and other structures, she said.
Schablitsky said the SHA has a dozen archaeologists and architectural historians who evaluate areas such as Gibson Grove. She said an archaeological survey planned for the cemetery later this fall will remove the bamboo, locate all the graves and help determine whether they can be avoided. In older African American cemeteries, she said, many graves are unmarked or marked by stones, shells or pieces of concrete.
“We want to completely avoid cemeteries because it’s taboo to impact the final resting place of people’s ancestors and family members,” Schablitsky said. “We’re very, very sensitive to make sure we avoid cemeteries at all costs. . . . We have reverence for the people buried in these cemeteries.”
If historical sites or structures can’t be avoided in a way that’s “feasible and prudent,” she said, the state tries to minimize the damage to them. If that’s not possible, she said, the state “mitigates” the impacts, such as by installing a historical marker.
Remains that must be relocated are removed by archaeologists and reburied based on the wishes of the family or church, often elsewhere on the same grounds, Schablitsky said.
The state has determined Moses Morningstar Cemetery to be historically significant because of its late 19th-century role in Cabin John’s African American community. A state study notes that it is typical of an “upland south cemetery” with an “unplanned design, frugal grave markers and small size.”
Under the state’s draft plan to add toll lanes to the Beltway, the widening and a new off-ramp would affect 400 linear feet of the graveyard and expand into about one-third of an acre, or about one-fifth of the total 1.5-acre site.
Cemetery advocates have stuck dozens of small orange flags where the earth atop unmarked graves has sunk in rectangular shapes about six feet long. Some graves sit next to the Beltway’s chain-link fence.
Schablitsky said the state’s plan to add toll lanes to Interstate 270 also could affect Poor Farm Cemetery in Rockville. Its gravesites were relocated years ago for a development project, according to a recent county cemetery inventory, but Schablitsky said archaeologists will search for any that might remain. Burials occurred there from 1789 to 1983, according to the inventory, but it was not specifically for African Americans.
Schablitsky said she’s unaware of any public opposition to the widening potentially affecting Poor Farm Cemetery. The public comment period on the state’s draft impact study ends Nov. 9.
Elsewhere in Montgomery, residents are reckoning with the fate of other historical African American burial grounds. Activists have been protesting construction of a self-storage facility near the site of the River Road Moses Cemetery in the Westbard area of Bethesda. They say that area, as well as part of the cemetery beneath a parking lot, should be preserved for an educational museum and memorial.
The Moses Morningstar Cemetery is hardly peaceful, with Beltway traffic roaring past just beyond the bamboo grove. The other side abuts backyard fences of homes in the 1980s subdivision of Evergreen. Chunks of stone and concrete lie about, appearing to be markers that have broken or slid off their gravesites.
There are at least eight engraved headstones and markers, but Whitley said death notices, newspaper archives and oral family histories show at least 78 more burials between 1894 and 1977. They include Emma Jones, the longtime housekeeper for American Red Cross founder Clara Barton, and Sarah Gibson, the community’s founder who had previously been enslaved in Virginia, Whitley said.
Eileen McGuckian, president of the nonprofit Montgomery Preservation Inc., said about one-third of the county’s 325 cemeteries were specifically for African Americans. She and other advocates say the state should focus on avoiding the cemetery rather than potentially moving graves.
“They’ve been using the word ‘mitigation,’ ” McGuckian said of state highway officials. “We’ve been using the word ‘avoidance.’ ”
Cabin John resident Charlotte Troup Leighton said she expects to lose part of her backyard to the Beltway expansion, and her subdivision is seeking a noise abatement wall. While the state will pay for whatever property she loses, she said, the descendants of those buried in the cemetery can’t be compensated for dislocated graves.
“I fell in love with the property,” Troup Leighton said of her advocacy. “It’s kind of hard not to get attached to it when you meet the descendants.”
The land is owned by the Morningstar Tabernacle No. 88, a chapter of the Order of Moses, Troup Leighton said.
The Order of Moses was a post-Civil War benevolent society throughout the Mid-Atlantic that used membership dues to provide financial help, burials and social support to African Americans during segregation, Whitley said.
Adjoining the cemetery are the remains of the stone foundation — about 15 feet by 30 feet — of Moses Hall, a small lodge that hosted chapter meetings, community social gatherings and, at times, a school, Whitley said. It, too, could be affected by a wider Beltway, according to the state’s draft plan.
The Gibson Grove A.M.E. Zion Church still stands on the other side of the Beltway, on Seven Locks Road. After its membership declined, First Agape A.M.E. Zion Church took over the property. However, it’s been vacant since a 2004 fire gutted the building.
Planning documents show the Beltway widening might affect part of the church’s land but not the building itself. Maryland highway officials said the state is working to avoid or minimize impacts to the church, including “diminishment of the property’s historic setting” when heavy equipment is stored or moved through there during construction.
Waldorf resident Montgomery Crawford, 67, said both the church property and burial grounds should be spared. He said his grandfather, George Crawford, was buried in Moses Morningstar Cemetery in 1975, but he’s still searching for the grave.
“It’s terrible,” Crawford said of the Beltway widening plan. “They should come up with another alternative. This is sacred, holy ground. It’s a cemetery. You don’t dig up a cemetery and put a road on top of it.”
Magda Jean-Louis and Eddy Palanzo contributed to this report.