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.
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.
The earlier Silver Spring might be called the Romantic Silver Spring and the latter might be called the Entrepreneurial Silver Spring.
Contemporary local historians and community bloggers have lumped together the two Silver Springs to create a nostalgia-rich narrative that tackles everything from how the unincorporated community got its name to which neighborhoods beyond the central business district should be included within the fluid Silver Spring boundaries and which should be excluded. This is the third Silver Spring. Instead of names like “Big Silver Spring” or “Little Silver Spring,” as blogger Dan Reed has dubbed them, I’ll call this modern invention the Nostalgic Silver Spring.
Missing from these nostalgia narratives are some very hard questions about the roles that race and racism played in creating the 20th century Silver Spring. For much of the previous century, the Entrepreneurial Silver Spring was a sundown suburb knit together from several dozen residential subdivisions that excluded African Americans through racially restrictive deed covenants.
In the Entrepreneurial Silver Spring, the only African Americans who lived in the community’s core, the area within a one-mile radius of the intersection of its two main streets — Colesville Road and Georgia Avenue – were domestic servants. African Americans could work in Silver Spring but they could not live there, worship there, go to school there, or play there. The businesses willing to take black money – there weren’t many, longtime area residents have told me – rigidly enforced Jim Crow rules: no eating in, no using the front door, and no trying on clothes or hats.
The Silver Spring that I and my neighbors love isn’t the product of 1960s U.S. Postal Service and Census Bureau functionaries as bloggers Dan Reed and Sean Emerson suggest. The Entrepreneurial Silver Spring is a rationally conceived business product that originated among community builders with a vision for their investments. And, that story is tightly framed by the Jim Crow practices of the time. The Entrepreneurial Silver Spring, whether we like it or not, has its origins in racist capitalist practices that the Nostalgic Silver Spring seeks to erase or forget.
In 1967, Washingtonian magazine asked, “Is there a Silver Spring, and if so, why?” “It’s nice; there’s no colored here,” one Silver Spring resident told the magazine. Another woman told the magazine that she had moved to Silver Spring, “to get away from certain neighbors.”
As Apollo astronauts were training to land on the moon and high-tech firms were filling in former farmlands in the nearby I-270 corridor, Silver Spring remained a pocket of Old South white supremacy. Residents loved Silver Spring for its easy commute to downtown Washington, its suburban yards and trees, and the seemingly impenetrable barrier keeping African Americans out of the community. “Negroes,” wrote Washingtonian, “have been safely left behind at the District line.”
This history matters and it is virtually absent from most historical narratives produced about Silver Spring over the past 20 years. Longtime residents are keenly aware of the omissions. The gulf between the Nostalgic Silver Spring and the Entrepreneurial Silver Spring is evident in books, blog posts, and newspaper articles by Silver Spring Historical Society founder Jerry McCoy.
At the turn of the 21st century, McCoy collaborated with local filmmaker Walter Gottleib to to produce the documentary, Silver Spring: Story of An American Suburb. After its release in 2002, the documentary drew divided reactions among longtime Silver Spring residents. Whites reveled in its nostalgia while longtime African American residents were less enthusiastic.
An old website (now deleted) created by the filmmaker described the documentary:
Take a 160-year trip through the history of one of Washington, DC’s oldest and most fascinating suburbs… Silver Spring, MD in this dynamic 90-minute documentary. It’s all here – from the fateful horseback ride that led to Silver Spring’s founding in 1840… to the community’s boom time as a bustling retail center in the 1940’s and 50’s… to its eventual decline and ultimate re-birth. Enjoy the fun and nostalgic stops along the way… Giffords Ice Cream, The Tastee Diner, the Silver Theater, Hunter Brothers Hardware, The Hot Shoppes, Blair High School, the B&O Railroad Station, and many more. Discover how world and national events… from the Civil War… to the coming of the railroad and streetcars… to the New Deal to Post War Prosperity… shaped it into a unique and historic suburb. Re-live the past through the emotional memories of everyday residents… and celebrities Goldie Hawn, Ben Stein, Nora Roberts, Dominique Dawes, and others. No matter where you live now, “Silver Spring” will find a place next to your photo albums and scrapbooks… and close to your heart.
“It’s all here,” the copy reads.
But was it all there?
One woman with whom I spoke recently described her reaction to the 2002 documentary. “They talked about all the glorious and the wonderful and all the good stuff about Silver Spring, which it did have good things,” she said. “But, you know, when you tell a story, you have to tell the whole story. And what they also should have said about the downtown Silver Spring.” She wondered why the video didn’t include stories about the segregated stores and movie theaters.
A University of Maryland American Studies doctoral student analyzed Gottleib’s film and found that segregation in Silver Spring got less than four minutes of coverage in the 90-minute film. One resident told the researcher that he was disappointed that the documentary “glossed over segregation” and he described it as a “chamber of commerce piece.”
Most of the last-minute interviews Gottleib did about African Americans and segregation in Silver Spring ended up on the cutting room floor and, along with the material, much of Silver Spring’s history. That’s where a lot of Silver Spring’s history has ended up: cut and replaced by nostalgia.
For an alternative look at how history and historic preservation are produced in Silver Spring, consider taking the new Silver Spring Black History Tour. The tour launches October 22. Contact me for additional information.
UPDATE: Read my follow-up articles, Invisible by design? Silver Spring’s black history sites and Silver Spring, Maryland Has Whitewashed Its Past.
© 2016 D.S. Rotenstein