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Pro Bono Lawsuit Filed by Rothwell Figg Ends with Historic Victory Halting Sale of Burial Ground for Former Slaves and Descendants and Ensuring Compliance with Maryland State Law

October 25, 2021

In a historic ruling involving the potential sale of the Moses African cemetery, the burial ground for hundreds of descendants of former slaves, on October 25, 2021, Judge Karla Smith granted Plaintiff’s Motion for a Preliminary Injunction, thereby halting the sale of the property to a developer unless and until it complies with Maryland state law. A team from Rothwell Figg represented the Plaintiffs, including the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition (BACC), the pastor of Macedonia Baptist Church in Bethesda, and several descendants of individuals buried at the Moses African Cemetery, pro bono in this momentous case.

The lawsuit, originally filed in early 2021, seeks to stop the sale of a burial ground for formerly enslaved Africans to a developer unless and until it complies with Maryland law that 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. In late summer 2021, in response to Plaintiffs’ motion the court granted a temporary restraining order. The Plaintiffs then filed a preliminary injunction motion, with the Defendants moving to dismiss. In response, the Court conducted a 12-hour hearing on September 27, 2021, on the Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss and Plaintiffs’ Motion for a Preliminary Injunction. The court, in two rulings issued earlier today, denied Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss and granted Plaintiffs’ Motion for a Preliminary Injunction.

“This is an important and historic victory, not just for the Plaintiffs in this lawsuit, but for all of those throughout the United States who have ancestors buried in traditional cemeteries that have since been obliterated, destroyed, paved over or converted to other uses,” said Steven Lieberman, the lead attorney for Plaintiffs. “Judge Smith’s brilliant and thorough analysis will pave the way for similar actions throughout the country designed to ensure justice for those in our society who are most helpless—those who have passed away and rely on others to protect the sanctity of their eternal rest. Hopefully, the Housing Opportunities Commission will now abandon its illegal efforts to sell this land in violation of Maryland law.”

The Rothwell Figg team working on this pro bono case includes Steve Lieberman, Jenny Colgate, Lawson Allen, Kristen Logan, Nasri Hage, Erik van Leeuwen, and Sandra Foster. Also representing the Plaintiffs is Jennifer Semko from Baker McKenzie.