As It Happens

Maryland descendants fight highway expansion that threatens historic Black cemetery

Diane Baxter doesn't want the state of Maryland digging up her great-grandfather's grave to widen a highway — and she's not alone in her fight.

Diane Baxter's great-grandfather was buried at the Moses Morningstar Cemetery in 1894

Diane Baxter, right, pictured with Chris Waynes, centre, and Montgomery Crawford, left, are descendants of people buried in the Moses Morningstar Cemetery in Cabin John, Md. (Montgomery Crawford/Submitted by Charlotte Troup Leighton)

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Diane Baxter doesn't want the state of Maryland digging up her great-grandfather's grave to widen a highway — and she's not alone in her fight.

Baxter, 72, is one of descendents fighting the expansion of Interstate 495 — a.k.a. the Capital Beltway — into the historic Moses Morningstar Cemetery, which once served as the graveyard for the Black community of Gibson Grove.

"If it proceeds, that means that they will encroach on the cemetery and graves. And that means … that the graves will have to be moved — if they can find all of them," Baxter told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

The Maryland State Highway Administration did not respond to a request for comment.

A town divided, literally 

Baxter learned from historical records that her great-grandfather, a local farmer, was buried at Morningstar in 1894, though she has no idea where.

The cemetery dates back to the 1890s. About 80 people are believed to have been laid to rest there, but many of the graves have broken headstones, small plaques or stone markers, or no identification at all.

It's on a small patch of land in Cabin John, Md., in Montgomery County, alongside the busy interstate highway, invisible to the vehicles that whiz noisily by.

The historic African-American gravesite sits right alongside the Capital Beltway. (Russell Leighton/Submitted by Charlotte Troup Leighton)

But it used to be the heart of Gibson Grove, a vibrant Black community founded by former enslaved people who wanted to buy land, form a community and take care of each other. 

In the early 1960s, a highway was built straight through Gibson Grove, separating the graves from the church. It's an indignity that lives on for the descendants of the community's original residents, said Baxter. 

"It's very fresh in people's minds. Even though those who may have been around at that time are no longer with us, yes, it's a wound. It's a deep wound that will never go away," Baxter said. 

Fighting all over again

The state has now proposed an expansion of the highway to add toll lanes, threatening the cemetery even further. It could also affect the land on the other side of the highway, where the Gibson Grove A.M.E. Zion Church still stands, vacant since a 2004 fire. 

Now, local activists, historians and lawmakers are making noise, demanding the sites be preserved.

"If the project were to proceed with new impacts to the site, it would add to the cumulative damage caused by the Beltway's construction through the Gibson Grove community," reads an open letter from Maryland Democratic senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, and Congressmen Jamie Raskin and David Trone.

"We risk once again committing the error of building roads without regard to the historic, cultural, and social values of vulnerable communities, especially those of African American heritage."

'You can't mitigate removing a burial' 

The Maryland State Highway Administration (MSHA) has vowed to do whatever it can to avoid damaging the sites.

Julie M. Schablitsky, MSHA's chief archeologist, told the Washington Post the sins of the past won't be repeated because modern U.S. governments are much more attuned to the need to protect historic sites than those of the '50s and '60s.

"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."

Historians, activists and local residents are fighting to save the cemetery from being uprooted during the expansion of the highway. (Russell Leighton/Submitted by Charlotte Troup Leighton)

She said an archeological survey later this fall will evaluate the site, clear away the bamboo, and locate all the graves. Then, she says, they will be able to determine whether the graves can be avoided.

If, however, it's deemed not "feasible and prudent" to avoid the grave site, then the MSHA will make efforts to "mitigate" the damage by relocating the remains to an appropriate site based on wishes of the family or church, and potentially installing some time of historical marker, she said. 

As far as Baxter is concerned, that's not an amicable solution.

"You can't mitigate removing a burial. You can't mitigate removing your grandparents' or your mother's grave. How do you do that when this is an area that was dedicated and preserved and fought for to be a family community?" she said. 

"You can't mitigate that. That's a wound that runs deep."

She believes the state will try to plow through with its plans, but she and her allies won't make it easy. 

"I think they're determined, just like any other project that they may want to do," she said.

"But there are a number of organizations and high officials in the Maryland community that are joined with us in support and are insisting that they make other plans for this highway widening, and also not to cause additional damage [on top of] what was already done in the '60s."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Diane Baxter produced by Lisa Bryn Rundle. 

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