Invisible by design? Silver Spring’s black history sites

Since last spring I’ve been asking public officials, neighborhood leaders, longtime residents, and strangers in the street where to find sites associated with African American history in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland. The answers I received were pretty much the same: there aren’t any.

The closest I came to getting an answer that didn’t include suggestions for nearby Lyttonsville or Sandy Spring came from Montgomery County Planning Department director Gwen Wright. She suggested a site near the D.C. line where a historical marker commemorates the arrest of William Chaplin who in 1850 was accused of spiriting slaves out of Washington to freedom. “Not many others that are popping into my mind,” Wright, who led the county’s historic preservation office for 20 years between 1987 and 2007 [PDF], wrote in an August email.

Historical marker, Jesup Blair Park, Silver Spring, Maryland.

Historical marker, Jesup Blair Park, Silver Spring, Maryland. County planning director Gwen Wright said that this marker commemorating an 1850 event was the only site within downtown Silver Spring that she knew was associated with African American history.

As I wrote in an earlier post, Silver Spring developed as a sundown suburb — a place where African Americans could not buy property or rent apartments and homes — for most of the 20th century. Contrary to the comments I got during my informal queries about where to find African American heritage sites in downtown Silver Spring, I have identified

Silver Spring Heritage Trail Marker, Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, Md.

Silver Spring Heritage Trail Marker, Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, Md.

about 20 sites — buildings, spaces, and objects — that tell a cohesive story about African Americans in Silver Spring during the 20th century. I will be discussing those sites in my walking tour October 22.

The tour and these articles are the first steps in what I hope will be a community conversation about how history and historic preservation are produced in our community. It’s an important conversation because for too long, Silver Spring’s historical narratives — with a few notable exceptions — have ignored African Americans altogether or minimized and marginalized these members of our community. These omissions have spilled over into public policy decisions that range from urban planning initiatives to the designation and protection of historic places in our community.

My latest article, Silver Spring, Maryland, Has Whitewashed its Past, has just been published by the History News Network. I hope that my neighbors and community leaders don’t read it as an indictment of how we have failed to recognize and include the African Americans who helped build our community and make it successful; my wish is that we use the article and the tour as an opportunity to move forward by producing history and historic preservation that celebrates our entire community, not just the wealthy white men who currently dominate the narratives and landscape.

© 2016 D.S. Rotenstein

The three Silver Springs

There are three Silver Springs. There’s the mica-flecked spring where Francis Preston Blair established an antebellum farm in rural Maryland north of the District of Columbia.

The Silver Spring site. A reconstructed 19th-century acorn-shaped gazebo is in the background.

The Silver Spring site. A reconstructed 19th-century acorn-shaped gazebo is in the background.

Then there’s the early 20th century place created by real estate entrepreneurs and community boosters with visions of creating an all-white middle-class Washington suburb. Continue reading

Trigger warning

White planners and preservationists see one thing when looking at this bridge. Longtime African American Lyttonsville residents see something else.

White planners and preservationists see one thing when looking at this bridge. Longtime African American Lyttonsville residents see something else.

A small Silver Spring, Maryland, neighborhood called Lyttonsville has been getting a lot of attention lately. Some local bloggers have been writing about the changes that a proposed light rail line will bring to the historically African American community. And, they have written about changes coming if the Montgomery County Council approves a new master plan for the area.

Over the weekend, The Washington Post published an article about the proposed demolition of a historic bridge linking Lyttonsville with historically white neighborhoods. The Post article was inspired by an article in this blog and it dovetails with the issues about which the bloggers were writing. Continue reading

Talbot Avenue: a bridge in black and white

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.

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 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.

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“The Silver Spring Affair”

In early August 1925, 16-year-old Mary Elizabeth Price claimed that she had been attacked by an African American man. The assault, she told authorities, occurred in a residential street in Silver Spring, Maryland, near the Washington, D.C., line.

After police detained one African American and searched the homes of several others, Price retracted her allegation that she had been attacked by an African American. On August 14, 1925, the Washington Post published a letter to the editor about the episode. It bears revisiting following the events of last week in Minneapolis, Baton Rouge, and Dallas.

Nearly a century later, we haven’t eradicated “the spirit of ill will” the author described.

The Washington Post, August 14, 1925.

The Washington Post, August 14, 1925.

 

The “Decatur Plan” revisited

Did Decatur, Ga., have a plan to turn its city all white as some urban legends and local rumors suggest? In a conspiracy theory sense, it’s not likely. But, the city certainly created an atmosphere through 35 years of official policies and resident actions that instilled in many African American residents a belief that there was a “Plan” to remove them.

[1] I told my mom recently that I don’t even want to live here any more because I can’t go to work in the morning without looking around, wondering which way I should go to avoid being stopped because I’m driving her car. I can’t come home at night without wondering if I should go down DeKalb Avenue or come down [Interstate] 20 and go through Kirkwood. I don’t know which way to even make it home and I can’t be comfortable. — Decatur resident, Decatur City Commission, 21 April 2014

[2] Decatur’s a great place. I love it. I love seeing the signs saying one of the ten greatest places in the U.S. to live. It makes me feel so good. But then I know there’s something under the carpet and y’all should know it and a lot of African American people do know it.

That we feel like we’re not wanted in Decatur.– Decatur resident, Decatur City Commission, 21 April 2014

[3] They’d be every day trying to get you to sell, to get out. I guess to get out so they can just finish so it will be all white. That’s what I think it is — Decatur resident, April 2012

The Decatur Plan wasn’t hashed out in a smoke-filled backroom in the towering former Decatur Federal bank building. Instead, it is a cluster of loosely fitting motifs or rumors built on a conspiracy theory originating in Decatur’s African American kitchens, living rooms, barber shops, and churches. Continue reading

The “value gap” in history, historic preservation

I recently read Princeton University African American Studies professor Eddie Glaude’s new book, Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul. Glaude elegantly described what he called the “value gap”:

When I say that the value gap is rooted, in part, in our national refusal to remember, I am not invoking some politically correct notion of history that simply includes previously excluded groups. How we collectively remember is bound up with questions of justice. Or, to put the point differently, what we choose to forget often reveals the limits of justice in our collective imaginations.

As I completed my paper for this year’s Delta Symposium, Glaude’s book informed how I analyzed the creation of Decatur’s Authorized Heritage Discourse and the city’s historic preservation program. Glaude’s value gap is the most apt way to view Decatur and its relationship to African Americans, their history, and their historic resources.

Delta-slide-cover-2016

It’s not that Decatur hates African Americans in an old-school white supremacist fashion. Rather, Decaturites (city officials and many residents) simply don’t place as high a value on African Americans and their history as they do whites and the historic places with deep attachment among the city’s white residents. It shows in their policies towards affordable housing, taxation, community engagement, education, and, yes, historic preservation. Continue reading

Living in a salad bowl suburb

Last year we moved back to Silver Spring, Md., after living for nearly four years in the Atlanta metropolitan area. Atlanta — the city and its many sprawling suburbs — is one of the most racially and economically divided places in the United States. That point was quickly driven home in our experience with Decatur, a suburb that is undergoing rapid demographic inversion and gentrification becoming whiter and wealthier.

Since 1980, Decatur has lost more than 60% of its African American population, mostly through displacement. That process and the complicated history the city has with Jews, African Americans, and the politics of history and memory is the subject of a book I am completing.

Northwood-Four Corners Civic Association newsletter editor Jacquie Bokow asked me to write about demographic changes in our neighborhood. This post is derived from the article I wrote for the October 2015 issue.

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The Race Card

Last week NPR’s The Race Card Project featured my submission on gentrification in Decatur, Georgia. The post was a surprise since I submitted the entry a year or so ago …

race-card copy

Click the image to go to the full Race Card Project entry.

 

 

 

Public archaeology, public history, and race

A lot has changed in public history and archaeology since 1992. And, a lot hasn’t. In 1992, there were very few African American archaeologists. Within that class, even fewer of them were historical archaeologists specializing in African American material culture.

Former slave cabins, Rappahannock County, Va.

Former slave cabins, Rappahannock County, Va.

The early 1990s were a critical time in cultural resource management/public history/historic preservation. Congress had just passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and the world watched as archaeologists excavated the graves where more than 400 Africans were buried in downtown Manhattan. The archaeology was being done in advance of federal building construction and the site is now the African Burial Ground National Monument. At the time, debate swirled about what would become of the site and the people buried there.

Now, nearly a quarter of a century later, not only are there more African American historical archaeologists but there are more Native Americans, Latinos, and Asians specializing in the the field and turning their professional expertise inwards on their own pasts.

Continue reading