Invisible by design? Silver Spring’s black history sites

Since last spring I’ve been asking public officials, neighborhood leaders, longtime residents, and strangers in the street where to find sites associated with African American history in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland. The answers I received were pretty much the same: there aren’t any.

The closest I came to getting an answer that didn’t include suggestions for nearby Lyttonsville or Sandy Spring came from Montgomery County Planning Department director Gwen Wright. She suggested a site near the D.C. line where a historical marker commemorates the arrest of William Chaplin who in 1850 was accused of spiriting slaves out of Washington to freedom. “Not many others that are popping into my mind,” Wright, who led the county’s historic preservation office for 20 years between 1987 and 2007 [PDF], wrote in an August email.

Historical marker, Jesup Blair Park, Silver Spring, Maryland.

Historical marker, Jesup Blair Park, Silver Spring, Maryland. County planning director Gwen Wright said that this marker commemorating an 1850 event was the only site within downtown Silver Spring that she knew was associated with African American history.

As I wrote in an earlier post, Silver Spring developed as a sundown suburb — a place where African Americans could not buy property or rent apartments and homes — for most of the 20th century. Contrary to the comments I got during my informal queries about where to find African American heritage sites in downtown Silver Spring, I have identified

Silver Spring Heritage Trail Marker, Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, Md.

Silver Spring Heritage Trail Marker, Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, Md.

about 20 sites — buildings, spaces, and objects — that tell a cohesive story about African Americans in Silver Spring during the 20th century. I will be discussing those sites in my walking tour October 22.

The tour and these articles are the first steps in what I hope will be a community conversation about how history and historic preservation are produced in our community. It’s an important conversation because for too long, Silver Spring’s historical narratives — with a few notable exceptions — have ignored African Americans altogether or minimized and marginalized these members of our community. These omissions have spilled over into public policy decisions that range from urban planning initiatives to the designation and protection of historic places in our community.

My latest article, Silver Spring, Maryland, Has Whitewashed its Past, has just been published by the History News Network. I hope that my neighbors and community leaders don’t read it as an indictment of how we have failed to recognize and include the African Americans who helped build our community and make it successful; my wish is that we use the article and the tour as an opportunity to move forward by producing history and historic preservation that celebrates our entire community, not just the wealthy white men who currently dominate the narratives and landscape.

© 2016 D.S. Rotenstein

The three Silver Springs

There are three Silver Springs. There’s the mica-flecked spring where Francis Preston Blair established an antebellum farm in rural Maryland north of the District of Columbia.

The Silver Spring site. A reconstructed 19th-century acorn-shaped gazebo is in the background.

The Silver Spring site. A reconstructed 19th-century acorn-shaped gazebo is in the background.

Then there’s the early 20th century place created by real estate entrepreneurs and community boosters with visions of creating an all-white middle-class Washington suburb. Continue reading

Is the Greater Lyttonsville Sector Plan bad planning?

Residents who will be impacted by a new master plan proposed for a part of Montgomery County, Maryland, asked me to testify at a hearing before the Montgomery County Council. This post contains the testimony I submitted for the official record. A substantially abbreviated version was presented in the hearing session held September 29, 2016.

Montgomery County Council
Public Hearing on the Greater Lyttonsville Sector Plan
Testimony of Dr. David Rotenstein
September 29, 2016

Good Evening. My name is David Rotenstein. I am a professional historian, a Silver Spring resident, and a former chairman of the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission. I am here to speak against the proposed Greater Lyttonsville Area Sector Plan because of fatal deficiencies in a key area of the plan before you: its treatment of lyttsonville-signhistory and historic resources.

Last Sunday the Washington Post published an article about the Talbot Avenue Bridge. Relying heavily on my work, the reporter interviewed several Lyttonsville residents, two of whom spoke here Tuesday evening, about the bridge’s history and its importance to the community. They told the reporter, and me two months earlier, that the bridge was an important artifact that conveys significant information about Lyttonsville’s past as an African American community segregated from Silver Spring, a community that excluded African Americans from buying property and living there for most of the twentieth century. Lyttonsville was Silver Spring’s other side of the tracks. The Talbot Avenue Bridge, as longtime Lyttonsville residents told me (and the Post), does much more than carry traffic over a railroad. It connects communities and it is a palpable reminder of the Jim Crow segregation that defined Montgomery County social and economic life for a significant period of time. Continue reading

Trigger warning

White planners and preservationists see one thing when looking at this bridge. Longtime African American Lyttonsville residents see something else.

White planners and preservationists see one thing when looking at this bridge. Longtime African American Lyttonsville residents see something else.

A small Silver Spring, Maryland, neighborhood called Lyttonsville has been getting a lot of attention lately. Some local bloggers have been writing about the changes that a proposed light rail line will bring to the historically African American community. And, they have written about changes coming if the Montgomery County Council approves a new master plan for the area.

Over the weekend, The Washington Post published an article about the proposed demolition of a historic bridge linking Lyttonsville with historically white neighborhoods. The Post article was inspired by an article in this blog and it dovetails with the issues about which the bloggers were writing. Continue reading

Montgomery Preservation: Tear down that fence

In 1998, the historic preservation group, Montgomery Preservation, Inc. (MPI), bought the old and abandoned B&O Railroad station in Silver Spring, Maryland. A fence continues to separate the property from a popular and historic pedestrian bridge. Shortly after MPI acquired the property, novelist and Silver Spring native George Pelecanos introduced the pedestrian bridge and the railroad station to readers around the world in his 2001 novel, Right as Rain:

[Terry Quinn] crossed the street to the pedestrian bridge that spanned Georgia Avenue. He went to the middle of the bridge and looked down at the cars emerging northbound from the tunnel and the southbound cars disappearing into the same tunnel. He focused on the broken yellow lines painted on the street and the cars moving in rows between the lines. He looked north on Georgia at the street lamps haloed in the cold and watched his breath blow out into the night. He had grown up in this city, it was his, and to him it was beautiful. Sometime later he crossed the remainder of the bridge and went to the chain-link fence that had been erected in the past year. The fence prevented pedestrians from walking into the area of the train station via the bridge. He glanced around idly and climbed the fence, dropping down over its other side. Then he was in near the small commuter train station, a squat brick structure — George Pelecanos, Right as Rain (Grand Central Publishing, 2001).

Pedestrian bridge over Georgia Ave. in Silver Spring. Photographed Spetember 2016.

Pedestrian bridge over Georgia Ave. in Silver Spring, looking south from the edge of MPI’s property. Photographed September 2016.

Continue reading

Talbot Avenue: a bridge in black and white

There is no question that the bridge carrying Talbot Avenue over the CSX Railroad tracks in Silver Spring, Maryland, is historic. Two Maryland state agencies, the Montgomery County Planning Department, and the Federal Transit Administration all agree that the small bridge has historic merit and is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. The agencies also agree that the bridge needs to be replaced to accommodate construction of a new light rail line connecting suburban Washington, D.C., communities. But do the agencies understand why the Talbot Avenue Bridge is historically significant?

Talbot Avenue Bridge, August 2016.

Talbot Avenue Bridge, August 2016.

Built in 1918 by the B&O Railroad, the bridge carries automobile, pedestrian, and bicycle traffic over the railroad now owned and operated by CSX. The bridge connects the historically African-American Lyttonsville community with early twentieth century residential subdivisions established on the periphery of unincorporated Silver Spring. Lyttonsville was founded in the 1850s by a freed slave named Samuel Lytton and it became one of several dozen African American hamlets scattered throughout Montgomery County. Silver Spring and its residential subdivisions were a sundown suburb: racialized space where African Americans were unable to live because of racially restrictive deed covenants and where public space and private businesses were governed by strict Jim Crow segregation.

The Talbot Avenue Bridge may be the last surviving historically significant structure in the Lyttonsville community. This post explores the various historic preservation efforts undertaken to document the bridge and the community’s perspectives on the bridge and its history. The reasons why the Talbot Avenue Bridge isn’t better understood and isn’t protected from demolition like other officially designated Montgomery County buildings and structures may be a policy gray area but they are clearly visible in black and white terms.

Continue reading

“The Silver Spring Affair”

In early August 1925, 16-year-old Mary Elizabeth Price claimed that she had been attacked by an African American man. The assault, she told authorities, occurred in a residential street in Silver Spring, Maryland, near the Washington, D.C., line.

After police detained one African American and searched the homes of several others, Price retracted her allegation that she had been attacked by an African American. On August 14, 1925, the Washington Post published a letter to the editor about the episode. It bears revisiting following the events of last week in Minneapolis, Baton Rouge, and Dallas.

Nearly a century later, we haven’t eradicated “the spirit of ill will” the author described.

The Washington Post, August 14, 1925.

The Washington Post, August 14, 1925.


Washington’s Bloomingdale neighborhood tackles gentrification using history

One of the greatest injustices in South of Market redevelopment has been the callous obliteration of its past. — Chester Hartman, Yerba Buena: Land Grab and Community Resistance in San Francisco (San Francisco: Glide Publications, 1974).

Urban planner Chester Hartman’s observation about San Francisco’s Yerba Buena neighborhood looms large as one Washington, D.C., neighborhood is trying to prevent its past from being displaced and rewritten as the forces of gentrification sweep through. Residents of Bloomingdale, an early District of Columbia suburb that was absorbed in the late 19th century by Washington, have mobilized to undertake an innovative interdisciplinary effort to seize control of the neighborhood’s future by gaining a better understanding of its past.

My latest article for the National Council on Public History’s History@Work examines Bloomingdale’s project. In the H@W piece I touched on how Bloomingdale residents and the volunteer researchers and community planners struggle to define gentrification. It’s not an easy task.

Older businesses share street fronts with newer ones like this yoga studio in Washington's Bloomingdale neighborhood.

Older businesses like the DC Mini Market share street fronts with newer ones like yoga studios and restaurants with patio seating  in Washington’s Bloomingdale neighborhood.

Continue reading

Six acres, two schools, a park and suburban continuity in Silver Spring

1958-bulletinjpgSuburbia has many critics and defenders. The former excoriate the space as wasteful sprawl and the latter defend its place in architectural and social history. Somewhere between the two extremes lie stories originating in suburbia’s mythically sterile origins and which celebrate the adaptations residents and entrepreneurs made to newly created residential spaces.

Silver Spring’s Alexander School and camp — the place where Bird Legs dwelled in underground caves — is one of those stories.

When developers finished platting residential subdivisions and building physical infrastructure and houses, they turned the spaces over to new residents: homeowners. These residents needed stores, schools, and other services to complete their new communities. Sometimes the builders provided these; other times it was up to the public sector and entrepreneurs. Continue reading