Silver Spring’s history is racially biased. Let’s fix it.

Panel discusses “Silver Spring: Story of an American Suburb,” September 2017. Left to right, Jerry McCoy (Silver Spring Historical Society), Walter Gottlieb (filmmaker), and Todd Hitchcock (AFI Silver Program Director).

For the past six years I have taken a deep dive into how communities produce history and historic preservation. Silver Spring, Maryland, and Decatur, Georgia, are inner ring suburbs with similar development histories and comparable historiographies. In both places, like many others throughout North America, white (oftentimes male) histories and historic places are preserved and narrate while people of color are omitted or marginalized.

I have written about both places here and in history and planning publications. My community’s history is racist. How can I correct it? recently was published in the National Council on Public History’s History@Work blog.. The article recounts my community’s efforts to reframe how history and historic preservation are produced to create a more accurate and inclusive record.

The leading purveyor of biased history in Silver Spring is the Silver Spring Historical Society (SSHS). Over the past 20 years the organization has waged a quixotic war against developers and it has contributed to creating a commemorative landscape filled with racial microaggressions and erasures.

The SSHS filled a void in Silver Spring in 1998 when Montgomery County leaders were moving forward with demolishing a historic armory building. Through time the organization has become the default authoritative source for history in Silver Spring. When I was asking folks last year where I could find Black history sites in downtown Silver Spring, people frequently replied with a suggestion to contact the SSHS.

April 6, 1998 email in the records of the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission.

Montgomery County planners routinely defer to the SSHS as an authority on Silver Spring history when  the agency is evaluating master plans and park renovations. In the recently approved Greater Lyttonsville Sector Plan, the Montgomery County Planning Board included the SSHS as a community partner.

Earlier this year, the Montgomery County Parks Department invited the historical society to present a history of Acorn Park in a community meeting [PDF] about proposed renovations to the historic site. An email from Parks Director Mike Riley in response to a request to consult people of color in the park’s renovations included this statement: “The Silver Spring Historical Society also shares an interest in interpreting the history and resources of the park. The Department of Parks regularly works with community groups on cultural resources interpretation ….”

Proposed concept for corrective interpretation at Silver Spring’s Acorn Park. Imges show evolution of design for mural that inserts Black bodies into a space and time where they never would have been permitted.

Even Montgomery County Planning Board Chairman Casey Anderson equivocates about the SSHS and its role in influencing how history and historic preservation are produced in Silver Spring. During a meeting in early November, Anderson said that Silver Spring has multiple histories and the SSHS is telling one of them. It reminded me of Donald Trump’s post-Charlottesville statement about Neo-Nazis and there “very fine people on both sides.”

Histories that celebrate white supremacy and that erase the Black experience are not “fine” nor are the organizations that produce them even after being confronted for more than a decade about what’s missing.

When confronted with its racially biased work, the organization’s leaders and its allies deflect and decline to be accountable for its work and damage to the community. At a September screening of the documentary Silver Spring: Story of an American Suburb, I asked the Silver Spring Historical Society’s founder and only president Jerry McCoy how he could produce histories that omit the Black experience.

With permission from the event’s host, the AFI Silver Theatre, I recorded the exchange. Here is McCoy’s answer:

I published two books. My first one was in 2005, Historic Silver Spring, and then I followed five years later, 2010, by a book titled Downtown Silver Spring. These were both published by Arcadia and they are photo books, 180 photographs in each book. Both books were geared very much towards the built environments. We as a historic preservation organization think it’s important to retain some of the landmark buildings here in the city because we don’t want to lose them and become just another generic community.

So both of those books focused completely on buildings. My purpose in writing those two books was to convey that these buildings do have a history. That they should not be thought of as disposable. And, I’m very proud of these two books and if you’ve never seen them, please order both of them. [Audience laughs] They’re available on Amazon.com.

I was unable to ask McCoy a follow-up question, notably how a history book cannot be a history book. Thumbing through the 128 pages of McCoy’s 2005 book, Historic Silver Spring (Images of America), there certainly appears to be a lot of history that goes above and beyond simple architectural descriptions. In fact, the publisher wrote, “Images of America: Historic Silver Spring celebrates the community’s past, beginning with founder Francis Preston Blair’s 1840 discovery of the mica-flecked spring … Historic Silver Spring honors the people and places that have come before.”

Historic Silver Spring back cover.

Even if we accept McCoy’s answer that the book is a picture book about architecture, where are the pictures of the buildings where important civil rights actions occurred in the 1960s? Where are the stories about Jim Crow segregation that dominated many of the business revered in the book and throughout the SSHS’s historical markers and other published materials? Or, the racial restrictive covenants that kept African Americans from living in the residential subdivisions celebrated in the book? Where was Lyttonsville’s story?

As a proud Silver Spring resident I am embarrassed to walk through my community’s downtown and see markers that distort my community’s history and that celebrate white supremacy and an organization with no interest in moving beyond antiquarianism and an obsolete paradigm for producing history.

Typical panel from a Silver Spring Heritage Trail sign, Georgia Avenue.

© 2017 D.S. Rotenstein

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