Montgomery County, Maryland, goes to great lengths to promote its communities as diverse and progressive. Yet, actions by such institutions as the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission undermine those assertions with racialized land use policies and historic preservation plans that omit, marginalize, and alienate the county’s communities of color. Patterns apparent over the past 20 years suggest that the agency, which was founded by a white supremacist real estate developer and Democratic Party boss, structurally hasn’t moved very far from its 1920s origins as a machine for building suburbs where power and authority remain concentrated among the white middle and upper classes.
Framing Structural and Institutional Racism
In September 2016, a historic preservation planner with the Montgomery County Planning Department’s Historic Preservation Office approached a group of residents from the Lyttonsville community in the lobby of the Montgomery County Council Building in Rockville. The planner and the residents of the historically African American community were there to attend a hearing for the Greater Lyttonsville Sector Plan.
The planner began speaking enthusiastically about her research in a neighboring community that had been developed by Jewish developer Sam Eig: Rock Creek Forest. She told the Lyttonsville residents that in her research on Eig and the subdivision she found that Eig did not attach racial restrictive covenants to the properties.
The following morning I emailed the planner and asked her about what she had told the Lyttonsville residents. She replied:
What I was telling [Lyttonsville resident] was that Sam Eig developed Rock Creek Forest, without restrictive covenants. He also donated land there for two churches and the Jewish Community Center (?and maybe for the Red Cross). MCHS has information on Sam Eig.
I then responded to her that her statements to the residents were inaccurate, that Eig had indeed attached racial restrictive covenants to his Rock Creek Forest properties.
A few months later another historic preservation planner with the agency began a series of public programs about Jewish developers in Montgomery County. This planner’s presentations now reflected the fact that Jewish developers did in fact discriminate based on race.
Despite the acknowledgement that the developers about whom she was speaking did discriminate against African Americans, the historic preservation planner then attempted to minimize that discrimination by suggesting that it only began after the creation of New Deal era federal mortgage lending standards and that the developers simply were conforming to accepted practices.
“From what I can tell, this was a practice used by developers in this time period in order to qualify for these federal funds,” historic preservation planner Clare Kelly told attendees at the Montgomery County Historical Society’s 2017 history conference (see the YouTube clip above for the complete presentation).
Kelly’s statement appears to dismiss the segregationist land use practices by framing them in terms of the developers using racial restrictive covenants simply to qualify for Federal Housing Administration mortgage insurance. There are a few problems with this position, first and foremost that racial restrictive covenants were common well before the New Deal and the creation in 1934 of the Federal Housing Administration; developers used them because they didn’t want African Americans living in the “exclusive” and “restricted” communities being developed. In lower Montgomery County where Eig and others were active in the early twentieth century, subdividers and developers had been attaching racial restrictive covenants to properties since at least 1904.
What’s Missing from Montgomery Modern?
The statements about Jewish developers in Montgomery County expose a larger issue of racial bias in Montgomery County’s historic preservation program. The Montgomery Modern initiative, which includes the programs about Jewish developers, omits much of Montgomery County’s racialized land use history and the Jim Crow policies that dominated county government, commerce, and civic life until the late 1960s. Missing, for example, are the stories attached to architects and developers who openly discriminated against African Americans (e.g., apartment community baron Carl Freeman) or the civil rights actions that occurred in Silver Spring’s business district between 1962 and 1968.
As for Freeman himself, M-NCPPC architectural historians have written extensively about him in efforts to document and designate the developer’s apartment communities, including Glenmont Forest. All of the M-NCPPC narratives celebrate Freeman; none of them appear to mention his entrenched discrimination against African Americans nor do they mention the demonstrations against him that received national attention and which spawned the founding of several civil rights organizations, including the Action Coordinating Committee to End Suburban Segregation (ACCESS) and Jews for Urban Justice.
A Pattern of Omission
Montgomery Modern’s monochromatic hues and omissions extend to other aspects of the county’s historic preservation office going back decades. In 2002 the agency approved a historic resources survey of the Silver Spring central business district that omitted mentions of African Americans, segregation, or the civil rights actions that occurred in Silver Spring during the 1960s.
One case of rural gentrification in Montgomery County involves a historic African American hamlet where the Montgomery County Planning Department has been in litigation for more than a decade. Critics claim that the agency “erased” a farm road from county maps and in doing so made it possible for developers to isolate and erase the historic African American community located there.
More recent studies by the agency include the Lyttonsville sector plan mentioned earlier that failed to identify the historical associations between a historic bridge and the community’s African American residents. Only after a post in this blog and a subsequent Washington Post article did Montgomery County leaders begin speaking about the bridge and its ties to Jim Crow segregation and the African American community’s attachment to it.
And then there’s the Wheaton sector plan (link to PDF; historic preservation appendix), approved in 2012 and in which African American residents received a cursory mention: two men who bought homes built in the 1890s (now demolished) and whose descendants “In 1970 …. were still occupying the houses.” The historic context that the agency wrote contained no discussion of the thriving African American community established in Wheaton that included a school and churches. And, none of the existing properties associated with African American history in Wheaton were inventoried or recommended for protection under the county’s historic preservation ordinance.
More recently, the Montgomery County Planning Department and its director have come under fire from a Bethesda church congregation for insensitivity over a historic African American cemetery. African American residents with ties to the Macedonia Baptist Church allege that the Planning Department and its director are racist because of decisions perceived to favor a developer and language laden with racial micro-aggressions. The racism alleged isn’t the obvious hood-wearing and cross burning type; it’s less evident to whites who are in what the anti-racist author David Billings describes as deep denial.
“You Can’t be a Little Bit Pregnant”
Cumulatively, these cases raise serious questions about structural and institutional racism in the Montgomery County Planning Department. In most cases, it’s racial micro-aggressions yet persons of color perceive the historically-based, repetitive, and persistent acts, policies, and rhetoric as unvarnished racism of the sort that replaced the violent overt type associated with the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow. Some white folks call it “unconscious bias” or “color-blind racism” or “white privilege.” Those are palatable euphemisms that whites can sometimes accept when leveled at them but people of color know them as something else, something more insidious. Liberal and progressive folks oftentimes can only accept those euphemisms when they are used to describe them; anything else threatens to fracture carefully manicured images of self and community. To them, it would be unthinkable to call someone a racist who voted twice for Barack Obama, who knocks on doors for Democratic candidates, and who marches weekends to oppose Donald Trump.
It appears that Montgomery County Planning staff don’t understand the totality of the African American experience in Montgomery County and they don’t recognize the deep histories of discrimination that imposed social costs and psychological scars in communities affected by environmental racism, segregation, and displacement (physical, social, and cultural). The acts of omission and marginalization of Montgomery County’s people of color by the Montgomery County Planning Department are damaging and exclusionary and ongoing.
In social media posts and conversations with county council members and others I have suggested that these issues may be addressed by better training and by hiring more diverse staff with expertise in African American history and ethnography. There are no persons of color working in the County’s Historic Preservation Office, a situation I have observed since my first interactions with the agency in 2002 (there is at least one African American archaeologist working in the Parks Department’s Cultural Resources Stewardship Division). The agency’s attempts to highlight African American history often appear to be clumsy, perfunctory, and incomplete, frequently reducing the rich heterogeneous African American experience in Montgomery County spanning more than three centuries to a few rigidly constructed categories (e.g., slave, ex-slave, Underground Railroad participant, farmer, and church congregant). Several persons of color who are longtime Montgomery County residents have spoken candidly with me about the concerns they have with the ways M-NCPPC’s staff produce history and historic preservation here. One friend of mine went so far as to say that residents in Montgomery County’s communities of color withhold information from planners because of what they perceive as bias and because they do not want their culture to be exploited by an agency that continually demonstrates insensitivity at best and racism at worst.
Whatever the solution, Montgomery County leaders can no longer dismiss claims that its Planning Department has a race and racism issue.
© 2017 D.S. Rotenstein