Partner Jenny Colgate appeared on WPFW 89.3 FM's "What's at Stake" program on Wednesday, January 24, 2024, to discuss Rothwell Figg's pro bono case representing the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition (BACC), the pastor of Macedonia Baptist Church in Bethesda, and members of the Black community in Bethesda, Maryland, to stop the sale of a burial ground for formerly enslaved Africans to a developer unless and until it complies with Maryland law. In the 1960s, a parking lot and an apartment complex were built atop the burial ground. The case is currently in the hands of the Supreme Court of Maryland, and a decision is expected before the end of August 2024.
"One of the arguments that we've made throughout the case is that this case is not just about the descendants of the people buried in Moses African Cemetery. And it's not just about BACC. It's about the public. If we allow these cemeteries to be desecrated and wiped out, what are our children going to learn from?" Jenny told Denise Young, who was filling in for the program's host, Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo.
The lawsuit was originally filed in early 2021, and in October 2021, the Rothwell Figg team was successful in getting Judge Karla Smith to grant a preliminary injunction halting the sale of the property unless and until the Housing Opportunities Commission of Montgomery County (HOC), the current owner of the land, complied with Maryland state law. The Maryland law requires the seller of land that is or was used as a burial ground to bring an action in the county in which the burial ground is located so the court may decide whether, and under what terms and conditions, such a sale may take place.
"This is in the public interest. This is a situation where African Americans have been oppressed since the time they were brought to this country against their will. That goes to Judge Smith's findings - there has been oppression, there has been desecration, and this is clearly in the public interest," Jenny stated.
HOC thereafter appealed to the Appellate Court of Maryland, and that Court issued a ruling reversing Judge Smith's decision.
But, Jenny noted, "...none of the factual findings they appealed. So all of the horrific things that have happened to that property, and the fact that there is a burial ground that's continued to be desecrated, that is uncontested."
Jenny and the Rothwell Figg team then filed a petition for a writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court of Maryland. The Court agreed to hear the appeal and rule on the very important issues raised by this case.
"Only about 15% of appeals are taken up by the Maryland Supreme Court. So you have to file a petition and convince the court that the case is one of public interest, that it's one of first impression, and we obviously were able to check all those boxes with this case," Jenny explained.
The Court’s ruling reflects the importance of the issues raised by this case—specifically how burial grounds, such as the Moses African Cemetery, are to be treated under Maryland law. The case was argued on January 8, 2024.
"The Maryland Supreme Court obviously is interested in addressing an issue that is going to recur. And they have the ability to set the law that the rest of the country could follow. So everyone is watching - what will they do?" Jenny asked.
The Rothwell Figg team includes Jenny, Steven Lieberman, and Kristen Logan.
You can listen to the entire discussion between Jenny and Denise Young "What's at Stake" on WPFW 89.3 FM by clicking here.