The arc of the covenants

arc-of-covenants

Silver Spring began its existence in the early twentieth century as a sundown suburb, a place where race and class were rigidly controlled by traditions and legal enforcement. Jews and African Americans in Montgomery County navigated a world where Jim Crow laws and practices dictated where people could live, eat, and play. These segregationist policies were most evident in the racially restrictive deed covenants attached to residential subdivisions developed throughout the county between 1900 and 1948. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racially restrictive deed covenants were unenforceable, established communities used redlining and other discriminatory tactics to prevent Jews and African Americans from joining them as homeowners and renters.

1933 racial restrictions attached to a Montgomery County residential subdivision.

1933 racial restrictions excluding Jews, African Americans, and others, attached to a Montgomery County residential subdivision.

Changes in local and federal laws, combined with federal and state court decisions, brought down many barriers to Montgomery County communities. Jews joined other religious and ethnic groups in moving to older established communities. And, they built their own. This program explores the history of Jews in and around Silver Spring after 1948.  The Arc of the Covenants, this program’s title, takes its name from a line in a 1955 poem about the movement of Jews to the suburbs throughout America. This program follows that arc from the restrictive covenants that excluded Jews to the religious covenants that bind Jewish communities together in and around Silver Spring. 

A double-duty boundary: DC-MD state line and the eruv boundaries marking two Jewish communities.

A double-duty boundary: DC-MD state line and the eruv boundaries marking two Jewish communities.

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