Understanding racial profiling

Gentrified Oakhurst neighborhood in Decatur, Ga.

For more than 30 years I have gone uninvited into many neighborhoods in more than 20 states, first as an archaeologist and later as a historian. Whether it was a wealthy white neighborhood or a poor African American neighborhood, one thing was constant: no one ever looked out a window, saw a suspicious white man, and called the police.

Last week I was photographing “sit-down” restaurants east of the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C. The District’s seventh and eighth wards have the highest concentrations of poverty in the nation’s capital. Neighborhoods like Deanwood, Anacostia, and Congress Heights since the 1940s have become the city’s sink for African Americans displaced by urban renewal and gentrification. Continue reading

Decatur high school student examines gentrification & racism in articles

Late last year I was contacted by a Decatur High School student reporting on what appeared to her to be racial bias in disciplinary actions at her school and the precipitous drop in racial diversity at the school. The student located me after reading some of my work on gentrification and racism in her community.

I’m a senior at Decatur High School, and I write for our school magazine, Carpe Diem,” wrote Ellie Ritter in a November 2016 email. “I’m writing an article on Decatur’s gentrification and the displacement it’s caused.”

We arranged a telephone interview and I subsequently agreed to let her publish some images from my website.

Ellie’s reporting package examining gentrification and race in her hometown was published in the December 2016 issue of Carpe Diem, Decatur High School’s award-winning magazine. Kudos to Ellie for digging deeper into these topics than the professional journalists working in Atlanta and Decatur.

© 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

Gored by a steer

The news earlier this week that a cow had escaped from a slaughterhouse in New York City went viral. After all, it’s the 21st century. What are cattle doing in the middle of big cities?

Yet, the headlines and the obligatory humor that followed would have been familiar to urban dwellers in any North American city since the turn of the 19th century. As cities expanded and drove yards on their hinterlands were absorbed by expansion. Later on, after 1850, railroads carried large numbers of cattle, sheep, and hogs to urban abattoirs,

Inevitably, some animals escaped while being offloaded from train cars (and later trucks) or they broke free from pens in stockyards while awaiting auction or slaughter. In the 1880s, a generation after the nation’s first union stockyards opened in a farm field outside of Pittsburgh, the local East End News ran several articles recounting wayward food on the hoof:

GORED BY A STEER (Saturday, September 4, 1886)

On Wednesday a steer broke out of the East End Stock Yards and for a time had things his own way. Mrs. Andrews was on the pavement in front of her house on Station Street, but before she could get out of the way the animal had gored her seriously. On her head were several scalp wounds and her body was considerably bruised. Medical aid was summoned and it was found that none of the wounds were dangerous. The bull was recaptured and taken back to the yards.

NEWS ITEMS (August 25, 1888)

A wild steer created a panic Wednesday afternoon … Mr. O’Neal, a butcher in Lawrenceville, was taking a drove of cattle home from the stockyards when one broke away and started back.


Some things never change. Cities with lots of people still need to feed those people. As long as we have cities and we consume fresh meat, stories like the one out of New York will keep coming. How would Twitter have treated the East Liberty beast that gored Mrs. Anderson, I wonder?

© 2017 D.S. Rotenstein

Lyttonsville Black History Month program

I would like to thank the staff of the Gwendolyn E. Coffield Community Center for hosting me Saturday February 18. And, a big acknowledgement to the Silver Spring residents who gave up a sunny and warm Saturday midday to learn about African American and civil rights history in Silver Spring, Maryland.

The walking tour returns this spring, along with a new local non-profit partner with plans to integrate my history work into its Silver Spring racial equity program. Stay tuned for dates and details.

Charlotte Coffield, the center’s namesake sister, was instrumental in arranging the program. I am fortunate to have met Charlotte and the other Lyttonsville residents with whom I have spoken the past year. I am looking forward to learning more about the community’s history and the role its people played in Silver Spring’s history. Their stories have enriched my understanding of how people of color and their histories are erased from suburbs.

Charlotte Coffield stands in front of a case inside the Coffield center’s lobby where her family and community’s history are on display.

Silver Spring Black History Tour program. Photo by Alan Bowser.

© 2017 D.S. Rotenstein

Silver Spring’s monument to white supremacy

Silver Spring Armory. Historic American Buildings Survey photo by Bill Lebovich.

In 1998, crews demolished the Silver Spring Armory. Located in the heart of the suburban Washington suburb’s central business district (CBD), the Armory occupied prime real estate earmarked to provide parking for a new urban renewal project.

Built in 1927, the Armory quickly became unincorporated Silver Spring’s de facto city hall and civic center. In 1984, the State of Maryland declared the property surplus and it was transferred to the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission. After rehabilitation work, the building opened as a community center and in 1984 it was listed in the Montgomery County Master Plan for Historic Preservation. Continue reading

This is America

The mind-boggling thing about Trumpworld is all the people insisting that “this is not America.” People are chanting it in the streets and pleading with the world to believe it.

But, this is America. Though he lost the popular election by nearly 3 million votes, Donald Trump did get millions of votes — enough to tip the Electoral College. The Russians hacked and partisans parsed. Important facts, but not nearly as important as we live in a nation where a Donald Trump presidency was possible let alone realized.

There’s no amount of erasers or whitewash that will eradicate 400+ years of oppression based on race and religion. This is an America that our society cycles back to every so often. This time, though, the world has left America behind and more Americans are self-aware of our inherent ethnocentrism. The difference now is it’s harder to hide behind an increasingly tattered flag that reveals a naked emperor desperate to cling to a national origin story that doesn’t square with historical facts.

Donald Trump, as horrendous and repugnant as it may seem, didn’t make American Great Again. He simply restored America to a version of its past that we haven’t found a way to confront, fess up to, and move on from.

Donald Trump isn’t Adolph Hitler. Donald Trump isn’t Richard Nixon. Donald Trump isn’t Andrew Jackson. Donald Trump is Donald Trump.

In some respects, the world has never before had a Trump and if we all survive this, I hope humanity learns from it and never repeats this monumental mistake. Trump arrived at the right time and in the right place to exploit people (and be exploited [by Russia, by white nationalists, by the Republican party desperate for a win at any cost]) to be elected President of the United States of America. It is the perfect political storm for which we don’t have a scale to measure its strength and predict its damage.

© 2017 D.S. Rotenstein

Grandpa Joe was an immigrant

Joseph Steinhart in his orphanage uniform. Undated photo.

My grandfather, Joseph Steinhart, arrived at Ellis Island October 6, 1920. He was 16 years old. He loved the Unites States despite the anti-semitic discrimination that he faced throughout his entire life. Unable to attend the college of his choice. Unable to be an engineer in the Navy. And, witness to many acts of enthocentlrism towards others during his life before dying in April 1994.

Were it not for my grandfather’s stay at a Warsaw orphanage before coming to the United States, the world might never know parts of the amazing story of the institution’s founder, Dr. Janusz Korczak. Survivor accounts describe Korczak leading a column of orphans from the Warsaw ghetto to the death camp at Treblinka. My grandfather’s memories and drawings have informed generations of historians writing about the Holocaust and Korczak biographers.

Orphanage. Undated sketch by Joseph Steinhart.

I would like to think of my grandfather as a hero for what he gave me — a thirst for knowledge and a drive to fight for what’s right — but that would be insufficient. My grandfather is a hero for bearing witness to the worst and best of humanity. If he were alive today, he would be sitting at his desk with a stack of white typing paper composing by hand in his distinctive engineer’s block script letters to the editor and letters to government officials decrying the inhumane and un-American actions by the new American president. I desperately wish he were here today to share his wisdom, his courage, and to be a witness yet again to the best and worst humanity has to offer.

1978 St. Petersburg Times photo of my grandparents showing some of his memorabilia related to Janysz Korczak.

Joseph Steinhart’s clipping binder.

Historic preservation shines a light on a dark past

In October 2016, the National Council on Public History published an e-book titled Preserving Places: Reflections on the National Historic Preservation Act at Fifty From The Public Historian. The volume is a collection of invited essays that discuss various aspects of public history published to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act.

My essay, “Historic Preservation Shines a Light on a Dark Past,” appears on pp. 18-19.

Historic Preservation Shines a Light on a Dark Past by David Rotenstein on Scribd