In 1998, crews demolished the Silver Spring Armory. Located in the heart of the suburban Washington suburb’s central business district (CBD), the Armory occupied prime real estate earmarked to provide parking for a new urban renewal project.
Built in 1927, the Armory quickly became unincorporated Silver Spring’s de facto city hall and civic center. In 1984, the State of Maryland declared the property surplus and it was transferred to the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission. After rehabilitation work, the building opened as a community center and in 1984 it was listed in the Montgomery County Master Plan for Historic Preservation.
The Armory was evaluated for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. It includes this statement about the building’s historical significance:
[The building has] strong historical associations with the careers of the founding fathers of modern Silver Spring Frank L. Hewitt and E. Brooke Lee and generally played a key role in the twentieth century economic and social development of Silver Spring.
Hewitt and Lee were staunch segregationists who developed residential subdivisions throughout Silver Spring that excluded African Americans from owning, renting or otherwise living there unless they were domestic servants.
When the proposal to raze the Armory was introduced, historic preservationists led the effort to enforce the protection against demolition afforded by designation in the Master Plan for Historic Preservation. Those efforts failed. But, they led to the creation of the Silver Spring Historical Society (SSHS) and to a mitigation plan developed by Montgomery County leaders intended to compensate for the Armory’s demolition.
The mitigation plans included conducting a historic resources survey of the Silver Spring CBD, the installation of historical markers, and the salvage of materials from the building.
The historic resources survey was completed in 2002; the “Silver Spring Heritage Trail” was dedicated in 2010; and, some of the salvaged materials were incorporated in 2004 into public art installations next to the Wayne Avenue Garage that was built at the Armory site.
Like most of Silver Spring’s official histories, the CBD historic resource survey and the heritage trail signs failed to mention African Americans and the role segregation and Jim Crow played in the suburb’s development. It’s as if, according to those narratives, African Americans and white supremacy never existed in what SSHS leaders like to call “Silver Spring’s heyday.”
The erasure of African American history is evident in the public art display where the Armory once stood. A small illustrated plaque there simply recounts the building’s architectural history, with a brief nod to its historical associations with the community: “The Silver Spring Armory, completed in 1927, was significant for its association with the Maryland National Guard 29th Division’s service during World Wars I and II.”
Missing from the narrative is the fact that the National Guard unit, like all Maryland Guard units, was segregated and no African Americans were allowed to serve in it until the Cold War. Also missing is a fact that many African Americans who grew up and who lived in Montgomery County and neighboring Washington: the Armory, as civic space, was as rigidly segregated as Silver Spring’s residential neighborhoods and the nearby stores in the CBD.
The Armory is celebrated by preservationists and nostalgic residents as the place to go for sock hops, community holiday parties, and official government ceremonies. Among Silver Spring’s African American residents, there are different memories:
I do remember hearing about sock hops and other events at the Armory but that was during the segregated times and we were not welcomed there. I was a young adult when I first entered the Armory for a work related reception type event, probably in the late fifties or early sixties, and was not impressed. At the time I wondered what was there that they did not want people of color to see. I never went back. — Charlotte Coffield, 2016.
What does the incomplete public narrative about the community’s past on display where Silver Spring’s Armory once stood say about race and history? It says a lot and it’s past due for an update.
© 2017 D.S. Rotenstein