An early history of Lyttonsville, Maryland

INTRODUCTION

Just about the only thing Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission’s Montgomery County Planning Department (M-NCPPC) architectural historians got right in the agency’s history of Silver Spring, Maryland’s, Lyttonsville community was that Samuel Lytton bought some property in 1853. Were it not for a sharp rebuke from longtime residents of the historic African American hamlet, the official history memorialized in a new sector plan would have read that Lytton was a “freed slave.”[1] That early draft historic context contained many factual errors, some of which were corrected before the Montgomery County Planning Board in late 2017 recommended approving the Greater Lyttonsville Sector Plan, which the Montgomery County Council approved in early 2017.

The final Lyttonsville historic context that is now part of Montgomery County’s background materials for formulating everything from development plans in the community to public art for proposed light rail line stations to place making efforts to historic preservation planning is an incomplete and error-filled narrative. Whether it’s the false assertion that Lyttonsville was a “pre-Civil War free black settlement” or the lazy conclusion that agency staff couldn’t find out what happened to Lytton’s property after his death, “It is unclear who owned the property when it was platted as twelve lots,”[2] there are significant issues with the M-NCPPC’s research.

This post explores some of Lyttonsville’s early history up to the turn of the twentieth century and fills in some of the many gaps left by the M-NCPPC staff research that is now Montgomery County’s official historic context for the community.

Samuel Lytton

There are no known images depicting Samuel Lytton.

Samuel Lytton is a historical mystery. He spent about four decades in Montgomery County and left only ephemeral evidence about who he was, how he made a living, and what motivated him to establish a basis for the development of the community that now bears his name.

Government documents give us a glimpse into Lytton’s basic biography. He was a Maryland native who was born c. 1830. In 1849 he married Phyllis Cosbery in Washington, D.C. Phyllis, born in Kentucky, was 20 years Samuel’s senior. It is possible that she was an enslaved member of Francis Preston Blair’s household who came to Washington from Kentucky with the Blair family. The following year a census enumerator documented him as a “laborer” living in Blair’s household in what is now Silver Spring. By the 1860 census, Lytton had established his own household in the five acre tract he had paid white farmer Leonard Johnson $96 to buy in January 1853.[3] Three years later, during the Civil War, Lytton registered for the newly enacted federal draft. The entry identified Lytton as a “colored” farmer who was married. Continue reading

A lifeline for the Talbot Avenue Bridge

Now that Silver Spring, Maryland’s, Talbot Avenue Bridge has a new history can it also have a new future?

Last year Montgomery County officials and many county residents learned that the Talbot Avenue Bridge was more than just some old metal and wood assembled in 1918 by the B&O Railroad and spanning the CSX Railroad tracks. They discovered its important ties to the county’s civil rights history. Once slated for demolition and replacement to make way for the proposed Purple Line light rail project and closed since April for safety reasons, the bridge’s fate is now undecided.

My research into Silver Spring’s history as a sundown suburb, a place where people of color were unable to live unless they were domestic servants for most of the 20th century, exposed the bridge’s history beyond the Lyttonsville residents I was interviewing for my work. Longtime Lyttonsville residents have deep attachments to the bridge. Residents in the adjacent North Woodside and Rosemary Hills neighborhoods have mixed feelings about the bridge but acknowledge that before last year they knew little about its history. Even County Executive Ike Leggett told me in a recent interview that my research had changed his understanding of Lyttonsville’s history and the bridge.

The bridge is contested space where competing interests now collide. There is the newfound interest in the bridge’s history that is shared by people well beyond the railroad tracks and the neighborhoods the bridge connects. And, there are the compelling arguments originating in those neighborhoods: some folks in North Woodside want the connection closed to reduce cut-through traffic and people on both sides of the tracks make a strong case for keeping the crossing open to vehicular traffic, including emergency vehicles.

Talbot Avenue Bridge, closed approach from the North Woodside neighborhood, June 2017.

Continue reading

One president’s message

Some of you may know that I’m a historian. I don’t study and write about wars or presidents or the economy. I started out as an archaeologist and slowly moved my interests and work to people and events closer in space and time to the present. Now, much of my work involves oral history and documenting events in real time long before they become memories. Most of my work is done in communities undergoing change through gentrification where race, class, and past events collide in the present.

Back in 2011 my wife and I moved to an Atlanta suburb that in many respects is a lot like Silver Spring. These similarities were both good and bad. While there my attention quickly became focused on the bad things destroying the community. Some of them may be familiar to some of you, especially the ones involving lots of development changing established neighborhoods. Others included elected and appointed officials who appeared to make decisions that favored developers and real estate interests over the public good. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Confronting racism

I was honored to participate in IMPACT Silver Spring’s program last night, Courage Lives Here: Confronting Racism that Divides Us.

IMPACT Now 2017 panel. FB photo.

Dr. Yanique Redwood (with microphone) gave the keynote address and then moderated a panel that included Rev. Ronnie Galvin, MD Delegate Maricé Morales, and myself. This is the start of a very important community dialogue in Silver Spring and my work in documenting Silver Spring’s history as a sundown suburb plays a key role in addressing structural racism here.

 

Breaking through biased history in Silver Spring, Maryland

“Montgomery Modern” exhibit panel on display in the Silver Spring Library.

Three quarters of the buildings shown in this panel on display in the Silver Spring Library have important civil rights history stories. Unfortunately, Montgomery County residents won’t read about them in anything produced by the Montgomery County Planning Department’s Historic Preservation Office.

For the stories related to the community’s civil rights struggles and Silver Spring’s history as a sundown suburb folks need to take one of my Silver Spring Black History tours. The May 6, 2017, tour is booked solid. New dates are coming the week of May 8.

“Montgomery Modern” by the Montgomery County Planning Department’s Historic Preservation Office.

 

Silver Spring Black History Tour: May 6, 2017

UPDATE: The May 6 tour is sold out. New dates will be added soon.

Tickets are now available for the next Silver Spring Black History Tour. Mark your calendars: Saturday, May 6, 2017. The event is free but registration is required: https://silverspringblackhistory.eventbrite.com.

There’s new connectivity in Silver Spring

Last September I published a post about a fence blocking access from a railroad bridge connecting the east side of Georgia Avenue with the historic B&O Railroad Station on the road’s west side. The fence had been described by novelist George Pelecanos in a 2001 book set in Silver Spring (and Northwest Washington) and it had blocked the pedestrian connection for almost 20 years.

The fence and blocked connection in September 2016.

Montgomery County Councilmember Hans Riemer (D-At Large) responded to the initial post with a promise to look into the situation: “This fence is an abomination,” Riemer wrote. He pursued opening the connection by contacting the railroad station’s owner, Montgomery Preservation, Inc., and staff in the County’s Silver Spring Regional Center.

On March 9, 2017, Councilmember Riemer commented on a February Facebook update about the fence’s continued presence:

Thanks for prodding us on this. We got it fixed. According to the urban district staffer I spoke with it was the county’s responsibility and therefore the county fixed it.

Thank you Coucilmember Riemer for being persistent and for opening up this historic connection to a historic building in downtown Silver Spring.

© 2017 D.S. Rotenstein

How to not develop a “historical walking tour”

In 2014, graduate students in the University of Maryland’s Urban Studies and Planning Program dipped their toes into the public engagement process associated with the development of a Montgomery County, Maryland, sector plan.

Lyttonsville is a historically African American hamlet in unincorporated Silver Spring. For much of the 20th century, Lyttonsville was Silver Spring’s other side of the tracks. Silver Spring was developed in the first half of the 20th century as a sundown suburb: a place where African Americans could not live (because of racial restrictive covenants) or shop, worship, and play (because of Jim Crow segregation).

Sign for one of Lee’s “restricted” subdivisions in NW Washington. Credit: DC Public Library/National Archives and Records Administration.

E. Brooke Lee (1892-1984) was a Democratic political boss in Montgomery County and he was one of Silver Spring’s earliest boosters and founders. Though he held various elected and appointed state and county offices, his primary career was in real estate development. Lee, through his North Washington Realty Company, transformed former farms into sprawling residential subdivisions. Each of Lee’s subdivisions contained racial restrictive covenants prohibiting African Americans from living there as homeowners and renters.

The only African Americans who could live in Lee’s subdivisions were domestic servants.

Typical covenants from properties Lee sold in Silver Spring. This deed was executed in 1930 for a lot in one of Lee’s Four Corners subdivisions.

There’s abundant evidence that Lee never renounced his white supremacist views, even as a septuagenarian. In the late 1960s as Montgomery County was debating and enacting civil rights laws outlawing discrimination in public accommodations and housing, Lee was railing against these laws in local newspapers describing them as “Anti-White Laws.”

The worst blow to the continued existence of the great suburban Montgomery County that her people have built since 1920 will come from the Anti-White laws — E. Brooke Lee, March, 1967.

And yet, the University of Maryland students, proposed a “Lyttonsville Historical Walking Tour” with a wayfinding sign dedicated to Lee and his contributions to the community.

Perhaps these students should literally go back to the drawing board with this one.

Lyttonsville and the Proposed Purple Line Station, Appendix B, p. 82.

© 2017 D.S. Rotenstein