BETHESDA – A West African king made county history when he recently stopped at an African American cemetery to pay respects to his ancestors buried there and to seek forgiveness for his country’s involvement in the slave trade in the 19th century.
King Toffa IX of Porto-Novo, Benin is on a tour of various known African American burial sites in the United States. The U.S. tour was arranged by an organization called Roots to Glory. The group’s president, Ada Brown, participated in the afternoon’s events.
The visit to Bethesda came about because Brown knows Marsha Coleman Adebayo, president of the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition (BACC), who is married to the church’s pastor the Rev. Segun Adebayo. Coleman Adebayo was the emcee for the afternoon.
The king, organizers and people attending the event first gathered at Macedonia Baptist Church. Dozens of people filled the pews for the king’s visit. Church members and various groups such as Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) and BACC were among those who attended the speeches and the walk to the cemetery.
When it was the king’s turn to speak, he addressed the group with a heartfelt message. He asked for reconciliation for the work of the rulers who lived before him, who participated in capturing and selling his people into slavery.
“Like judges usually say, ‘We inherit the past, we inherit the present, we inherit the future,’” he said through an interpreter. “It is in this name that I ask forgiveness of you.”
After several people made remarks, the diverse group sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as The Black National Anthem. A few people in the group swayed as they sang. Benedictions followed.
Everyone in the sanctuary then filed out of the building and down its front steps, to the sidewalk that runs parallel to River Road. Some carried banners with the full name of the BACC.
The majority of the group walked in the far-right lane of the street beside the sidewalk, and a few used the sidewalk.
A few people honked their car horns and waved in support of group as they drove by the procession.
Not everyone in attendance from the county was a member of the organization or of the church on River Road. Najmah Rashad, a Rockville resident who is “over (age) 50,” carried a bunch of sage, which she had lit on fire, along with a candle in a glass jar. “It’s always been around” for use in rituals, Rashad said of the sage. She added that it helps clear negative energy from a space.
Rev. Adebayo was one of the dozens of participating in what he called a “march.”
“We are marching down to the, you know, burial site, which we call the Moses Cemetery,” Adebayo said as the group made its way along River Road. “And so, we’re going there to, you know, what we do as Africans to pay homage to our ancestors who are buried there.”
Ordinarily, the group would just cross River Road to get to the burial ground. However, Adebayo said, one of the property owners put up a fence, so the group walked a little over a block, crossed the street, and then turned left and walked up the opposite side of the road.
“There’s nowhere to walk,” Adebayo said. “Where (else) are we going to walk?”
Then the group walked behind the HOC-owned building and reached the cemetery – a section of the edge of the parking lot, as well as part of the wild vegetation next to it. The burial ground lacks a sign or marker.
Brown said a historic connection exists between the cemetery and the country of Benin. During the time of the slave trade, European countries transported people who lived in Africa along the coast, including some who were born in the country of Benin – formerly called the Kingdom of Dahomey; the ill treatment slaves received in the United States., which was part of the reason he wanted to visit U.S. Cemeteries.
Brown said the tour is not Toffa IX’s first trip to the United States.
The cemetery has been a source of debate between the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC) and activist organizations, such as the BACC, SURJ and the church, due to the burial place’s location underneath a parking lot on a property which the HOC purchased in 2017 for more than $20 million. The HOC has existed since the 1970s.
“No one can say that this is honorable,” said Coleman Adebayo while the group was gathered by the part of the parking lot under which she believes hundreds of Black people were buried during and around the time of slavery, later adding, “There’s where the people that built Bethesda (are buried).”
The king said a prayer over the site.
Tim Willard, former green party candidate in the county, and historian Amy Rispin gave historic background of the burial site. Then people took turns listing people believed to be buried there, with their ages and the people who “owned” them; some of those buried had names recorded, but many did not.
Toffa IX poured water out of a water bottle as a “libation” to the ancestors buried there. Next, reflected on the occasion.
Two cars approached the driveway toward the cemetery gathering on separate occasions that afternoon – once during the prayer and once while people were taking pictures with Toffa IX. Both times, the group did not seem to notice right away. A few minutes later, part of the group would reluctantly move aside so the car could pass.
After the event, Toffa IX said he was having trouble coming up with words to describe how he felt about the reconciliation. However, he said it was a relief to have the opportunity to ask for forgiveness. As king, he inherits “the good and the bad” from the rulers who came before him. “This is part of the bad,” he said, through an interpreter.
BACC has had peaceful protests related to the cemetery during the last couple of years. More recently, a few of the activists who want the cemetery to receive recognition interrupted an HOC meeting this year, and police arrested them.
Adebayo said he believed the event was well attended.
“We are very pleased, and we are gratified for those who took time out, on this beautiful Saturday, to come out and join us for this, so we are very pleased with the turnout,” Adebayo said.
The king’s next scheduled stop after Bethesda is in North Carolina.