In the spring of 2017 Silver Spring videographer Jay Mallin asked if he could interview me for a documentary video he was producing. The subject was Lyttonsville’s Talbot Avenue Bridge. I agreed and we met near the eastern approach to the bridge on a comfortable morning in late June.
Jay Mallin sets up to interview me at the Talbot Avenue Bridge, June 27, 2017.
Screen capture from “The Bridge.”
Jay completed the video in August. He invited me along with Lyttonsville residents Charlotte Coffield and Patricia Tyson to view the rough cut and we met in Charlotte’s dining room where Jay had set up an iMac on Charlotte’s dinner table.
Jay Mallin, Patricia Tyson, and Charlotte Coffield discuss Jay’s new video, “The Bridge,” August 30, 2017.
I invited Jay to write a brief introduction to his video and he graciously complied:
When I first moved to Silver Spring a few years ago one of the most charming things about my new neighborhood was a small bridge over the nearby railroad tracks. It was surfaced with wooden planks, and the structure itself appeared to be made of cast iron and been manufactured in the heyday of steam locomotives. Because it’s only one lane wide, cars patiently took turns to cross it, but the steady stream of pedestrians and cyclists didn’t wait for the cars.
But over the next few years, through mentions on the neighborhood listserv and conversations with neighbors, I gradually learned there was a lot more to the story of the Talbot Street Bridge. It connected a historically black and a historically white neighborhood across the tracks. To one community the bridge had served as a lifeline; to the other, it was a disagreeable nuisance they fought to shut down. Then David Rotenstein, though this blog, researched and gave a much fuller account, which was picked up in the press. Seeing a great story in my own neighborhood I put on my filmmaker hat and went to work. Today the bridge is closed to cars and scheduled for removal because of the Purple Line. I wanted to tell and preserve the story while the bridge, and the people who experienced and remember its history, are still available, and to have that in turn bring forward some of the buried history of segregation in Montgomery County.
© 2017 D.S. Rotenstein, Charlotte Coffield, Patricia Tyson, and Jay Mallin
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.” 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,” 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.
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. 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
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.
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 history 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
There is no question that the bridge carrying Talbot Avenue over the CSX Railroad tracks in Silver Spring, Maryland, is historic. Two Maryland state agencies, the Montgomery County Planning Department, and the Federal Transit Administration all agree that the small bridge has historic merit and is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. The agencies also agree that the bridge needs to be replaced to accommodate construction of a new light rail line connecting suburban Washington, D.C., communities. But do the agencies understand why the Talbot Avenue Bridge is historically significant?
Talbot Avenue Bridge, August 2016.
Built in 1918 by the B&O Railroad, the bridge carries automobile, pedestrian, and bicycle traffic over the railroad now owned and operated by CSX. The bridge connects the historically African-American Lyttonsville community with early twentieth century residential subdivisions established on the periphery of unincorporated Silver Spring. Lyttonsville was founded in the 1850s by a
freed slave free person of color named Samuel Lytton and it became one of several dozen African American hamlets scattered throughout Montgomery County. Silver Spring and its residential subdivisions were a sundown suburb: racialized space where African Americans were unable to live because of racially restrictive deed covenants and where public space and private businesses were governed by strict Jim Crow segregation.
The Talbot Avenue Bridge may be the last surviving historically significant structure in the Lyttonsville community. This post explores the various historic preservation efforts undertaken to document the bridge and the community’s perspectives on the bridge and its history. The reasons why the Talbot Avenue Bridge isn’t better understood and isn’t protected from demolition like other officially designated Montgomery County buildings and structures may be a policy gray area but they are clearly visible in black and white terms.