“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

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.

Continue reading

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.

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

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

Is the Greater Lyttonsville Sector Plan bad planning?

Residents who will be impacted by a new master plan proposed for a part of Montgomery County, Maryland, asked me to testify at a hearing before the Montgomery County Council. This post contains the testimony I submitted for the official record. A substantially abbreviated version was presented in the hearing session held September 29, 2016.

Montgomery County Council
Public Hearing on the Greater Lyttonsville Sector Plan
Testimony of Dr. David Rotenstein
September 29, 2016

Good Evening. My name is David Rotenstein. I am a professional historian, a Silver Spring resident, and a former chairman of the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission. I am here to speak against the proposed Greater Lyttonsville Area Sector Plan because of fatal deficiencies in a key area of the plan before you: its treatment of lyttsonville-signhistory and historic resources.

Last Sunday the Washington Post published an article about the Talbot Avenue Bridge. Relying heavily on my work, the reporter interviewed several Lyttonsville residents, two of whom spoke here Tuesday evening, about the bridge’s history and its importance to the community. They told the reporter, and me two months earlier, that the bridge was an important artifact that conveys significant information about Lyttonsville’s past as an African American community segregated from Silver Spring, a community that excluded African Americans from buying property and living there for most of the twentieth century. Lyttonsville was Silver Spring’s other side of the tracks. The Talbot Avenue Bridge, as longtime Lyttonsville residents told me (and the Post), does much more than carry traffic over a railroad. It connects communities and it is a palpable reminder of the Jim Crow segregation that defined Montgomery County social and economic life for a significant period of time. Continue reading

History at face value (Updated)

Antioch-2014-01

Former Antioch AME Church, Jan. 2014.

Decatur, Ga., blogger Dan Whisenhunt has been covering the impending demolition of a former African American church by a developer who proposes to build 20 townhomes on the site. Built in 1965 by Decatur’s oldest African American congregation after it was displaced by urban renewal, the building housed the former Antioch AME Church until 1995.

The church was not included in Decatur’s 2009 citywide historic resources survey despite widespread knowledge of its transcendental historical significance among the city’s longtime African American residents. Whisenhunt has been reporting on residents in nearby homes – many of them built during and after the 1960s urban renewal project – concerned over the new density coming to the parcel as well as the developer’s plans to cut down an old tree on the property to comply with City stormwater detention requirements. Continue reading

The South-View Cemetery view

Does a cell tower built across the street from a historic cemetery adversely affect the property? If there are significant visual impacts, as this article suggests, could historic preservation laws and regulatory reviews have prevented or reduced the impacts?south-view-01

South-View Cemetery is Atlanta, Georgia’s oldest and arguably most historic African American cemetery. Yet, as Georgia State University historian Richard Laub noted in a 2010 interview with alt-weekly Creative Loafing, it’s an “unjustly ignored site” that doesn’t receive the same amount of support, recognition, and respect that its better-known Atlanta counterpart, Oakland Cemetery, gets. The article for which Laub was interviewed was titled, “Atlanta’s forgotten black history.” Continue reading

The Decatur “Plan”

“The Plan” is deeply embedded in Washington, D.C., urban lore. According to Washington author Harry Jaffe,

“The plan” is a persistent conspiracy theory among many blacks in the District. It assumes that whites have had a plan to take back the nation’s capital city since the advent of home rule in the 1970s, when the city started electing blacks to local office. The white power structure is bent on moving blacks out and whites in, and it will always control the levers of power.

The Washington “Plan” is easily dismissed as contemporary conspiracy theory that dates to 1979. Academics, journalists, and pundits generally agree that despite demographic changes to the city once dubbed “Chocolate City,” there is no systematic plan to relocate Washington’s black residents beyond the District limits.

Decatur-Dekalb News, 1960.

Decatur-Dekalb News, 1960.

Although Decatur, Ga., has never had an African American “power structure” despite having a whole two African American city commissioners in its 191-year history, longtime black residents believe that Decatur does have a “plan” to eliminate them from the city’s ranks. Like Washington, the demographic data support popular observations that Decatur’s black population is declining. And, like Washington, that trend is easily explained by market forces and gentrification. Continue reading