The ghosts of covenants past

What do longtime residents in the Washington metropolitan area think when they encounter signs with the name of a real estate firm with a long and complicated history. On River Road, just south of Bethesda’s Macedonia Baptist Church, there was a home for sale in early 2018 and a sign out front caught my eye as I was driving to a meeting at the church.

The real estate firm whose signs are found throughout Bethesda and Chevy Chase is one of several established by W.C. and A.N. Miller and their successors to subdivide land, build homes, and then sell them. The firm’s website traces its history to 1912; Maryland incorporation records show that one entity affiliated with its founders —the W.C. and A.N. Miller Development Co. — was formed in 1942.

I wonder if this firm (and its 20th century contemporaries still in business today) has ever been called to answer for its decades of discriminatory suburban residential development and the lingering effects those practices that are found throughout Montgomery County?

Typical W.C. and A.N. Miller racial restrictive deed covenant. This one was filed in 1947 for the sale of a residential property in the Sumner subdivision near Macedonia Baptist Church.

In the mid-1940s, the firm subdivided former agricultural properties southwest of River Road and began selling home sites. Each sale included this racially restrictive covenant: “No part of the land hereby conveyed shall ever be used or occupied by or sold demised transferred conveyed unto or in trust for leased, or rented, or given to negroes or any person or persons of negro blood or extraction or to any persons of the Semitic race blood or origin which racial description shall be deemed to include Armenians, Jews, Hebrews, Persians and Syrians except that this paragraph shall not be held to exclude partial occupancy of the premises by domestic servants ….”

More than a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled racial restrictive covenants unenforceable in 1948, the Miller firm was still under fire for discriminatory housing practices. In the 1950s, open housing advocates repeatedly described the company’s role in housing discrimination in the Washington metropolitan area. Some of those accounts were memorialized in 1959 before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.


When the District of Columbia was accepting bids for urban renewal in the city’s Southwest, people in 1961 queued up to testify in opposition to a Miller-affiliated firm receiving a construction contract. The chief claim was the Miller firm’s discrimination against “minority and racial groups,” the Washington Evening Star reported.

Washington Post headline, October 26, 1961.

Historians who study twentieth century housing and discrimination aren’t the only people who can see the contemporary signs and connect them to Montgomery County’s racialized housing past. Harvey Matthews, an African American man who grew up on River Road in the 1950s, still has strong memories of the firm and its founders more than half a century after his family was displaced.

Harvey Matthews, November 2017.

“I can’t think of any home that through my teenage days that a black person owned that W.C. Miller built,” Harvey said. “I think that was one of his codes of not selling his homes that he built to black families.”

Even if the Millers did sell to African Americans, income inequality and area African Americans’ inability to accumulate wealth would have prevented many from even considering living in a Miller subdivision. “Black folks had less because they didn’t really have to deal with W.C. Miller. We couldn’t afford any of his homes or nothing like that,” Harvey recalled.

The company’s discrimination against African Americans, Jews, and others wasn’t just limited to home sales, Matthews explained. “He [Miller] didn’t hire blacks to do any of his painting or any of his home remodeling or building his homes while he was building his homes.” Harvey also said, “Every once in a while we thought that we could do some of his labor work and that was rare because he didn’t maintain a black workforce or blacks in his workforce back during that time.”

This is the history of housing and suburbanization in Montgomery County. It’s a history with which there has been no reconciliation, no reparations, and no justice for the survivors like Harvey Matthews and the other children of Montgomery County’s African American communities.

Note: Originally published on the Save Bethesda African Cemetery Facebook page.

Erasure is dehumanizing

In my latest article for The Activist History Review, I examine the proposal to remove a Confederate Monument in Decatur, Georgia. I wrote,

I’m happy that Decatur’s white supremacists will be deprived of a symbol to which they have deep attachment. but it’s a hollow victory when viewed in context. Left in place is a timeless system of structural racism and many more, less obvious monuments to white supremacy in Decatur. When those fall, too, then historians and anti-racists will have achieved something truly worth celebrating.

I began in 2012  trying to call attention to the structural racism that permeates every corner of Decatur society. The gentrifiers and Old South white supremacists living there ensured that any counter-narrative to the city’s brand as a diverse and liberal community would be violently ignored and marginalized. Meanwhile, six years later though my early observations have been vindicated.

Single-family home teardown, Oakhurst neighborhood, July 2012.

Decatur has become a white spatial imaginary where black bodies and black history have been erased. In their place are McMansions and historiography that celebrates a fictional past where the black experience exists only in the stigma of public housing projects and what white gentrifiers call “thugs”: the young African American men who strike fear into white mommybloggers’ hearts. Black history, like black wealth, black dreams, and black homes, was stolen while good white folks looked on, too self-absorbed, too prejudiced, or simply too stupid to see what was happening all around them.


History denied is history that is stolen

I feel like it sort of takes away somewhat from the church and the lodge hall because it’s so much taller than they are and they are the historical properties, not the tower. — neighborhood resident, August 2002.

A historic church, fraternal lodge, and tower in the heart of a Southern African American neighborhood, 2002.

This evening the Montgomery County Planning Board is poised to approve a new site plan for a proposed self-storage facility in Bethesda. The property where the facility is proposed once was part of an African American cemetery used by a Washington, D.C., benevolent organization during the first half of the twentieth century.

Like its counterparts throughout the United States in the federal, state, and local governments, the Montgomery County Planning Board and its staff in the Montgomery County Planning Department have failed to adequately take into account impacts to a historic African American property and a living community associated with it: the Moses Cemetery. An ethnocentric bias towards the cemetery is evident in all aspects of the County’s planning efforts dating back to the agency’s first involvement with the site as it was preparing the Westbard Sector Plan. Continue reading

Death and displacement

Concrete grave marker in an abandoned African American cemetery, Montgomery County, Maryland.

My latest article for The Activist History Review explores more than a century of serial displacement in two Washington area neighborhoods with a common connection: Bethesda’a Moses Cemetery.

People who lived in communities destroyed by urban renewal and gentrification frequently frame their narratives about displacement as theft. Their homes, businesses, and churches, they believe are stolen by capitalism. Spaces for the dead are among those stolen and erased.

For the rest of the story, read The Moses Cemetery: Where Serial Displacement Meets History.

© 2017 D.S. Rotenstein

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. Continue reading

How I lost my White Card

Nearly six years ago I met with Lyn Menne, Decatur, Georgia’s assistant city manager. We spoke over coffee at Java Monkey, a hipster joint featuring high-end coffee and evening performances, in Decatur’s upscale downtown. I had lived in Decatur for about six months and my wife and I already were considering moving from the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood where we had bought a historic bungalow in July of 2011.

Had I been more woke about race, gentrification, and the role neoliberal cities play in facilitating displacement and the conversion of space for wealthier and oftentimes whiter users, I probably could have had a better response to Menne when she said, “They’re just going to die” after I laid out my concerns about the rampant teardowns in our neighborhood and the social costs of gentrification to some of Decatur’s most vulnerable citizens. To Menne, there were no viable solutions to stem the displacement that her city’s municipal policies promoted.

Instead of citing examples of inclusionary zoning and affordable housing preservation programs in other cities as well as the affordable housing recommendations given to the City of Decatur several years before we moved there, I recall sitting there stunned and at a loss for words. That exchange is forever etched in my mind as an example of how cities and humanity fail.

How things have changed since then.

A pile of rubble is all that remained of Shirley Huff’s home 24 hours after demolition began in October 2011.

My meeting with Menne occurred after I watched a builder demolish the late Shirley Huff’s home and after I began an informal research project on our area’s history as an Urban Homesteading Demonstration Project neighborhood. I had begun mapping and documenting the 113 “dollar homes” that the city sold between 1975 and 1982 and I was interviewing residents about displacement.

In early 2012 I had a very rudimentary and unsophisticated understanding of gentrification and displacement. They were concepts I had encountered in the margins of my work in historic preservation regulatory compliance and as a consultant to a Washington community development corporation funding intermediary. Like many people alive today, gentrification was something I would know if I saw it but I doubt that I could have held my own in an academic debate with a geographer or sociologist or historian who had been working in and around gentrification for years. I also doubt that I could have successfully defended an academic article or thesis on the subject. Continue reading

“Black lives matter, alive or dead”

“Black lives matter, alive or dead” — poet Siki Dlanga

South African poet Siki Dlanga and rally organizer Laurel Hoa. Photo by David Rotenstein.

Several dozen people participated in a rally and march to support the recognition and preservation of the Moses Cemetery in Bethesda, Maryland. The cemetery initially was founded in the 1880s a nearby District of Columbia neighborhood. Continue reading

Ada Dupree and the Moses Cemetery: stories linked by race

Ada Dupree. Photo credit: Edisto Herald.

Ada Dupree (1887-1991) lived a long and consequential life. She moved to the small Florida town of Esto in 1902 at age 15. For the rest of her life, she and her family were among the few people of color in the rural panhandle community near the Alabama border. When she died in 1991 at the age of 104, her family began funeral arrangements in accordance with her wishes: Ada wanted to be buried in the town where she spent most of her life. But some residents in the mostly white community didn’t want her buried in the town’s “all-white” cemetery.

Ada’s story made national headlines and in 1998 former NBC legal correspondent Star Jones recounted the story to introduce her book, You Have to Stand for Something or You’ll Fall for Anything: “Sometimes it takes a story about death to teach you about life ….” Continue reading

Rally for the Moses Cemetery

When: Sunday, November 12, 2017, 1:30—3:30 PM
Where: Macedonia Baptist Church, 5119 River Road, Bethesda, Maryland

For more information, visit the Save Bethesda African Cemetery page on Facebook.

Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission, Nov. 1, 2017.

Continue reading