September 29, 2021

Hope for Historic Black Cemetery Threatened by Highway

At a time teeming with public debate over highway construction projects and issues of racial justice, community advocates, family descendants, and historic preservationists found themselves battling a highway expansion proposal adjacent to the grounds of a historic Black American settlement. It was this threat that landed Morningstar Tabernacle No. 88 Order of Moses Cemetery and Hall on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2021 list of American’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

But there is good news on the horizon, because in early September 2021 the state of Maryland announced plans to avoid ground impacts to this historic site as part of the ongoing expansion of the Capital Beltway. The story of Morningstar Moses Cemetery is a familiar one. Historic sites connected to historically excluded communities are often threatened by transportation projects just like this one, and while the state has agreed to make some changes to avoid ground impacts to the site, descendants and advocates remain concerned that other impacts (e.g., stormwater erosion) will still adversely impact the site.

History of Morningstar Tabernacle No. 88 Order of Moses Cemetery and Hall

Nestled along the Potomac River in Cabin John, Maryland, lies the remnants of an early Black settlement named Gibson Grove, founded in 1880 by formerly enslaved persons Sarah and Robert Gibson. Within 10 years, nine additional Black families would join the Gibsons with nearby land purchases, solidifying the area as a Black settlement located only 4 miles northwest from Washington, D.C. By 1885, members of the community had established a mutual aid benevolent society called Morningstar Tabernacle No. 88 of the Order of Moses, which eventually built a hall for meetings and a cemetery for its Moses members.

Image of a woman and a man side by side. The image is black and white and both individuals are wearing formal attire. While the woman is Sarah Gibson, a Gibson Grove Founder, the man who has a beard is unidentified.

photo by: Friends of Moses Hall

Image of Sarah Gibson, Gibson Grove founder, and an unidentified man.

A faint black and white image of A single building with two floors. there are three windows at the top, and the windows and a door at the bottom. The structure is surrounded by bare trees.

photo by: Friends of Moses Hall

A rare image of Morningstar Moses Hall. The photograph was found during recent research.

The Gibson Grove settlement grew, building institutions based upon the pillars of faith, education, and benevolence. The Gibson Grove AME Zion Church and Cabin John School joined the Moses Tabernacle No. 88 Hall and Cemetery in the 1880s and 1890s. The Gibson Grove AME Zion Church was rebuilt in 1923; now the First Agape AME Zion Church, the structure was boarded up following a fire in 2004.

Moses Hall, the benevolent society's building, was roughly 15 feet by 30 feet and two stories high and held meetings, dances, and other social gatherings for the community. The local school even rented its space during segregation. The hall was destroyed in the late 1960s under mysterious circumstances, and all that remains are sections of the foundation. Stunningly, a recent archeological survey conducted in summer 2021 utilizing ground penetrating radar has almost quadrupled the number of potential burials in the cemetery, from the 70 to 80 burials dated 1894 to 1977 identified by Friends of Moses Hall from death notices and certificates, to over 189 probable burials and an additional 188 possible graves. The increase in potential burials opens the possibility that the cemetery site might date to an earlier time period than previously thought.

The adage “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” rings loudly as historic preservationists, community leaders, and transit advocates must once again battle highway expansion. Highways are memorials to racial injustice as in many places across the country, state departments of transportation have viewed Black neighborhoods as the path of least resistance, displacing families, demolishing historic neighborhoods, and building highways to bring motorists into and around cities from growing suburban development.

A crop of a sepia toned map from 1917 of the Washington, D.C. area. The focus identifies the Gibson Grove Church and Cabin John in proximity to the Potomac River and includes topographic lines.

photo by: Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center

1917 map depicting Gibson Grove community as “No. 10.” Geological Survey (U.S.). "Washington and vicinity." Map. 1917.

The Impacts of Highway Construction

There is now a movement to remove sections of highways, redevelop the land with more innovative and inclusive public uses, and completely reconsider highway expansion projects throughout the country. Charlotte Troup Leighton, Friend of Moses Hall volunteer, described the frustration in looking at the past: “You can get a sense by looking at those old Capital Beltway right-of-way [property] taking files, the sort of injustice that was going on, systemic racism that was going on—you can see evidence of it. We're hoping to make a case for environmental justice and mitigation of cumulative impacts.” Hopefully new tools like the MDOT SHA Cemetery Inventory to identify cemeteries in the state's right-of-ways, a collaboration between the Maryland State Highway Administration and Preservation Maryland, is a step in the right direction. However, to date, sites like Morningstar Moses Cemetery threatened by current highway expansion plans have not been included in that inventory. The Morningstar site is already listed in the Burial Sites Inventory kept by the Montgomery County (MD) Planning Board.

Beyond highway erasure, many at-risk Black cemeteries are fighting their own crisis for acknowledgment, environmental justice, preservation, and protection. The Morningstar Moses Cemetery was one of many Black cemeteries that appeared in the applicant pool for the National Trust's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list and reveals a broader issue that these sites are threatened across the country and in need of national support.

A contemporary satellite image of Morningstar Moses Cemetery property which shows the proximity of the highway to the historic site.

photo by: Montgomery County, Maryland Burial Sites Inventory

A contemporary map of the Morningstar Moses Hall property.

Highway Expansion and the Importance of Documentation

This isn’t the first time the highway has threatened the Morningstar Moses Hall and Cemetery. Completed in 1962, the section of I-495 near Cabin John ultimately bisected the Gibson Grove community, isolating the separately-owned Gibson Grove AME Zion Church to the north of Moses Hall and Morningstar Tabernacle No. 88 Cemetery to the south. Even worse, the highway took a portion of the northwest section of the original cemetery grounds, and the recent archaeological survey uncovered evidence of at least 14 probable and up to 34 possible or suggested burials there within the highway’s right-of-way.

In 2018, the Federal Highway Administration and the Maryland Department of Transportation issued preliminary plans to expand the Capital Beltway. Yet the plans did not mention the cemetery, raising concerns from descendants and area residents. The I-495/I-270 expansion potentially threatened the Morningstar Tabernacle No. 88 Cemetery and Moses Hall foundations, which are directly adjacent to the existing highway’s right-of-way.

All of the initial expansion proposal options would have adversely affected the hall and cemetery by potentially damaging gravesites and removing part or all of the cemetery’s access road. By spring 2021, state experts had determined that the hall and cemetery are eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, and the cemetery boundaries are now included on highway planning documents.

Morningstar Moses Cemetery descendants and members of Friends of Moses Hall are still concerned about the highway project, and they continue to comb through historic documentation to discover as much as possible about the history of Gibson Grove and to provide input on the future highway plans. Montgomery Crawford, who has multiple ancestors buried in the cemetery from both the Crawford and Harris sides of his family, argues that “we need to look at what this cemetery has gone through and not allow it to happen again; the history of this cemetery should be passed on, but it should not be repeated.”

State Senator and descendant looking at artifacts and photographs on a table covered with white linen. Both individuals are masked.

photo by: Robb Hill

A Maryland state senator and a descendant of Morningstar Moses Cemetery looking at artifacts.

Diane Baxter, who has a great-grandfather and a great-grandmother buried in the cemetery, has researched her family for potential burials. Baxter sees the value of historic documentation and hopes others can learn from Morningstar’s predicament: “It certainly should be an example of what other [advocates] need to capture from the perspective of other cemeteries in Afro-American historical locations and places. We’re here, we've been mistreated, we've been abandoned, and we need to step up and take our place in this environment, in this world. I think that's happening, but there's a lot that we just can't capture. History didn't document what happened to us in ...detail.”

Site advocates hope that final highway plans will avoid disturbing the cemetery property and advocate for the mitigation of cumulative noise, social, visual, vibration, and environmental justice impacts in addition to any potential ground impacts. Due in part to sustained advocacy by the cemetery’s descendent community and the visibility brought by the 11 Most Endangered listing, in the summer of 2021 the state of Maryland conducted an archeological survey of a northwest portion of the proposed highway expansion site.

The resulting evidence from ground penetrating radar not only quadrupled the potential number of burials within cemetery boundaries, it also indicated the existence of up to 34 potential burials within the existing highway right-of-way. This new evidence led the state to announce in September that it would alter the plans to avoid direct ground impacts to both the cemetery property and the adjacent right-of-way of this sacred site. “The discovery of hundreds of previously unknown potential burials underscores the urgent need to respect and protect Morningstar Moses Cemetery,” said Jennifer Sandy, field director at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “The transportation planning decisions made today will reverberate for decades to come, just as we are still reckoning with the unjust decision to place the Beltway in this location in the first place. Every effort must be made to repair past harms and protect this sacred place for future generations.”

In the foreground is a gravestone in this image while in the background four individuals are performing various cleanup tasks in a wooded area, including raking leaves and collecting debris.

photo by: Friends of Moses Hall

One of the volunteer clean-up projects at Morningstar Moses Cemetery.

Looking Forward

Despite this significant progress for the protection of Morningstar Moses Cemetery, the fight is not over for the Friends of Moses Hall. The decision to simply avoid the cemetery grounds is not sufficient. As Alexandra Jones, PhD, archeologist, and Friends of Moses Hall trustee says, “Friends of Moses Hall welcomes MDOT SHA’s announcement that it will avoid 'ground impact' of the site. However, this elation is tempered with many unanswered questions regarding SHA’s future actions. Is SHA going to logically continue to investigate whether the cemetery and adjacent right-of-way land not previously surveyed has burials or not? And is SHA going to sufficiently mitigate other environmental impacts, such as stormwater erosion, vibration, aesthetics, and noise? Finally, how does SHA intend to address the injustices of the past, in low-balling land acquisition prices to Black landowners to physically dividing the community of Gibson Grove, separating its historic church from it?”

At a national level, the African-American Burial Grounds Network Act, legislation that would help survey, preserve, and advocate for historic Black cemeteries, passed the U.S. Senate in the second session of the 116th Congress but requires reintroduction to the current 117th Congress to proceed with the legislative process.

Independent researcher L. Paige Whitley described the need for cemetery preservation as a way to honor erased and hidden histories: “[Morningstar Moses Cemetery] was a community in life, and it is still a community in death, and should not be separated by anything or anyone. This history should be better known in the county and in the state. Younger kids should be more aware of what was lost for [Black] American communities. … It's about bringing voices to the forefront and letting them speak. These are voices that have not been heard for quite some time. And the descendants would like for their ancestor’s voices to be heard.”

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Jordan Ryan is an architectural historian, archivist, and principal owner of The History Concierge LLC. Their scholarship revolves around the built environment, urban planning, historic preservation, and spatial equity.

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