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 2016 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 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.

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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

Is Montgomery County Planning tainted by racism?

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.

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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.

 

Montgomery Modern madness

Montgomery County historic preservation planners have begun exploring, analyzing and recording local mid-century modern buildings and communities, part of an effort we call Montgomery Modern. — Montgomery County Planning Department website

A few years ago the Montgomery County Planning Department’s historic preservation staff began an initiative it calls “Montgomery Modern.” The initiative has included a massive public relations campaign to raise public awareness for, and appreciation of, Montgomery County’s mid-twentieth century architecture. Montgomery Modern has included bus tours and bike tours of residential subdivisions and architecturally significant office buildings, churches, and public buildings. And it’s yielded a book written by one of the agency’s historic preservation planners.

In its zeal to highlight other’s peoples’ buildings, the agency appears to have overlooked its own headquarters: the Maryland-National Capital Planning Commission’s Montgomery Regional Office (MRO) at 8787 Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring.

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