An erasure primer

Two maps of Silver Spring, Maryland, published 80 years apart provide a palpable and accessible example of erasure.

Top: 1933 North Washington Realty Company map of “North Washington”; Bottom: Historic Neighborhoods of Downtown Silver Spring. The dotted line shows the approximate location of the historic African American hamlet, Lyttonsville.

The first map was published in 1933 by the North Washington Realty Company. It shows all of the area the company and community boosters were branding as “Maryland North of Washington.” The promotional map showed the existing street network, community institutions (schools, churches, commercial buildings), and neighborhood names, including areas shaded where the company had investments and plans for new residential subdivisions.

The second map was published in 2012 by the Takoma Voice, a local newspaper. This map was published to illustrate Silver Spring’s historic neighborhoods:

We like thinking of history as a series of layers. The layers are the different eras, events and people of our past that can be peeled back to discover the Who, What, and Why of our current condition. Knowing our history gives us a sense of place and belonging. This sense of belonging is our heritage.

Both maps share more than the same geographic area and boosterism. The maps omit Lyttonsville, a historic African American hamlet established before the Civil War and which for most of the 20th century was known as Silver Spring’s “other side of the tracks.” According to both maps, Lyttonsville is unoccupied, undeveloped, blank space — despite the undeniable fact that it had its own streets, churches, schools, and many families.

Lyttonsville was — is — a community of color that was “erased” by the early 20th century real estate company. The North Washington Realty Company was founded and owned by E. Brooke Lee, a Democratic Party boss who wanted to create an all-white middle class bedroom community for the growing federal city, neighboring Washington. He and his partners and counterparts in other companies did this by attaching racial restrictive covenants to the subdivisions they developed. Ultimately, this created an area comprising more than 10 square miles where most of the space could not be occupied (owned, rented, or otherwise lived in) by African Americans unless they were domestic servants.

The map published in 2012 derived much of its information from publications by the Silver Spring Historical Society:

While we love history, we are not historians. We are offering only a broad brush sketch of the community’s history. There are plenty of others who have thoroughly documented this: The two Images of America books by Jerry McCoy for Silver Spring and one for Montgomery County by Michael Dwyer plus The 300 Year History of Silver Spring, Maryland by Richard Jaffeson are just a few of the sources we would recommend you read. We are grateful to them for sharing so much about our history.

The Silver Spring Historical Society has produced written histories, documentary videos, a heritage trail, and walking tours that are noticeably devoid of persons of color. The society’s work ignores — erases — the African American experience in Silver Spring’s history. It is something that has been recognized by Silver Spring’s people of color for decades, ever since the society was founded in the late 1990s. And it’s something analyzed extensively in a 2006 University of Maryland American Studies dissertation.

The omissions first produced by the Silver Spring Historical Society and reproduced by the Takoma Voice and other publications are textbook racial micro-aggressions. And, they extend beyond history books, newspaper articles, and blog posts into the production of historic preservation in Montgomery County. Cumulatively, they erase the African American history and black bodies from Lyttonsville and they erase the white supremacist origins of Silver Spring itself.

This post originated as a note on my Facebook page. The Silver Spring Historical Society apparently saw the post and shortly thereafter posted a link to the 2012/2015 Takoma Voice article:

Silver Spring Historical Society Facebook post, May 15, 2017. Screen capture May 16, 2017.

This isn’t the type of history Silver Spring deserves. Are the omissions and the recent Facebook post ignorance? Is the Silver Spring Historical Society tone deaf? Is it racist? Only the Silver Spring Historical Society can answer. The bigger question, though, is how long do Silver Spring residents continue to let the Silver Spring Historical Society and its founder define our community’s history?

© 2017 D.S. Rotenstein

3 thoughts on “An erasure primer

  1. In addition to the omission of Lyttonsville, there are other errors in the Takoma Voice map as well. Woodside Park was established in 1922-23 rather than 1919; Crosby S. Noyes’ “Alton Farm” wasn’t sold for development until late 1922.

    I realize the map is supposed to be suggestive, not accurate at a street level, but it is significantly misleading. Woodside Park did not extend north of Dale Drive but did extend to Colesville Road. Seven Oaks did not extend west of Colesville Road, and Woodside did not extend west of the B&O tracks or as far north as shown. There was no downtown development west of the B&O tracks until much later, and the size of Silver Spring Park is wildly exaggerated.

  2. There are early maps of the North American Continent that show human habitation only occurring in European immigrant holdings. Maybe European immigrants are the only humans worth noting from sea to shining sea, including Silver Springs. Thanks for pointing out this Fake History custom, yet again, David.

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