by David S. Rotenstein
Silver Spring, Maryland developed during the early twentieth century as a sundown suburb: an area covering more than ten square miles where racial restrictive deed covenants prevented African Americans from owning or renting homes. Located in Montgomery County about 6 miles north of Washington, D.C., Silver Spring didn’t begin desegregating its businesses until the late 1950s and housing discrimination remained legal there until 1968 when the county’s open housing law went into effect. Despite dramatic changes in Silver Spring’s demographics and politics, the community’s history and historic preservation efforts remain as segregated as its earlier public culture. African Americans, the Jim Crow era, and the civil rights actions that helped break down racial barriers in Silver Spring in the 1960s remain invisible in published histories and in the commemorative landscape.
The ways in which history and historic preservation are produced in Silver Spring effectively reproduce the exclusion of people of color from earlier periods by rendering them invisible in published histories, designated historic properties, and heritage-themed placemaking.
I live in Silver Spring and I make my living in public history. My work since 2011 has focused on suburban gentrification and how people of color are erased from communities and the historical record. The processes leading to the displacement of residents of color are tied to the production of histories and historic preservation programs that render them invisible by omission. In late 2016 I began conducting Black History Tours in Silver Spring’s central business district to help raise awareness of the community’s African American history. In early June 2017, after one of my tours, there was an event in one of Silver Spring’s historical parks where residents shared stories of discrimination and participants could submit comments to Montgomery County agencies undertaking renovations in the park. The event invited people to “protest invisibility and help make Acorn Park more inclusive.” This article documents the June 2017 event and the story behind how history is produced, and its ramifications, in Silver Spring’s Acorn Urban Park and throughout Silver Spring.
A Little Silver Spring History
Silver Spring is an unincorporated community that shares a boundary with the District of Columbia. The community’s origin legend is that Francis Preston Blair, a Washington journalist, in 1840 was riding his horse through the area when he discovered a mica-flecked spring. Blair subsequently bought 289 acres and named his new plantation Silver Spring. By the time the Civil War broke out, Blair was one of the largest enslavers in Montgomery County (twelve slaves in 1860).
By the end of the nineteenth century, the Blairs had substantial real estate holdings in Montgomery County. During the first quarter of the twentieth century, Edward Brooke Lee (1892-1984), who was a Blair, expanded his family’s real estate investments by buying up and consolidating large farm tracts to develop “restricted” and “exclusive” residential subdivisions. In the 1920s, Lee founded the North Washington Realty Company, which developed most of his properties through the 1940s.
In 1925, Lee was one of several real estate entrepreneurs who founded the Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce. Two years later they embarked on a branding and marketing campaign that included full-page advertisements in Washington newspapers touting “Maryland North of Washington” as a prime investment opportunity: “the logical place in which to build for posterity.” Maps published in these ads illustrated new and proposed residential subdivisions, proposed parks, major roads leading to downtown Washington, and the area’s two country clubs.
There was little development in Silver Spring during the first two decades of the 20th century; development accelerated in the 1920s. That decade kicked off a real estate boom in suburban Montgomery County that for all intents and purposes has never ended.
The first restrictive covenants attached to properties in Silver Spring were included in deeds executed by Virginia attorney and real estate speculator Robert Holt Easley (1856-1941). In 1902 Easley bought 67 acres near Silver Spring’s B&O Railroad station; two years later he filed a plat of “Building Sites for Sale at Silver Spring” in Montgomery County land records with 156 lots. Easley’s deeds prohibited the people buying his lots and all subsequent owners from selling or renting the properties, “the whole or any part of any dwelling or structure thereon, to any person of African descent.”
Easley’s subdivision was the first of more than 50 racially restricted residential subdivisions that were platted and developed between 1904 and 1948 in an area roughly bounded by the District of Columbia, Rock Creek Park, the Prince Georges County line, and the unincorporated community of White Oak—essentially the entire area that Lee and his real estate cohort called “Maryland North of Washington” and which simply came to be known during the remainder of the twentieth century as “Greater Silver Spring.”
In 1948, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Shelley v. Kraemer that racial restrictive covenants were unenforceable. For the next 20 years, however, redlining, steering, and discrimination in multi-family housing kept Silver Spring almost exclusively white. Though there were pockets of African American households on the margins of Silver Spring’s historic core (e.g., Lyttonsville and Chestnut Ridge), these nineteenth century unincorporated hamlets occupied areas where real estate speculators were unable to consolidate sufficient lands to create twentieth century subdivisions.
As late as 1967, Washingtonian magazine was reporting on the appeal Silver Spring held to whites moving away from Washington: “They love it because it’s easy to commute to Washington, Judith Viorst wrote. “And, they love it because Negroes, so far, have been safely left behind at the District line. Virtually everybody says so, one way or another.”
Interventions by civil rights activists in the late 1950s; the relocation of about 200 African American Department of Labor employees to Silver Spring in 1961 and the subsequent enactment of an open accommodations law in 1962; and, the passage of an open housing law in 1968 (just before federal legislation) began breaking down Jim Crow’s racial barriers in Silver Spring.
Producing Silver Spring History
The ways in which history and historic preservation are produced in Silver Spring effectively reproduce the exclusion of people of color from earlier periods by rendering them invisible in published histories, designated historic properties, and heritage-themed placemaking. Historians researching housing, businesses, and commercial architecture omit the African American experience from Silver Spring’s narratives. These books, articles, historic preservation documents, documentary videos, and heritage trail signs privilege and celebrate stories of segregationists like Lee, his Blair kin, and other early community boosters.
Some of the erasures are easily identifiable. In 2005, the Silver Spring Historical Society published a book titled Historic Silver Spring in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. That book did not mention African Americans, 1960s civil rights protests held in downtown Silver Spring, and it did not include the Lyttonsville community, which abuts Silver Spring’s historic core.
Earlier examples include Silver Spring Success: an Interactive History of Silver Spring, Maryland, a book first published in 1995, and a comprehensive historic resources survey of Silver Spring’s central business district that was completed in 2002.
More academic studies of Silver Spring’s history include several articles on the community’s commercial architecture and planning by The George Washington University architectural historian Richard Longstreth. These works analyze suburbanization in the Washington metropolitan area by focusing on development in Silver Spring during the middle part of the 20th century; Longstreth’s work omits African Americans and the role Jim Crow segregation played in Silver Spring’s formative years.
Though Longstreth’s work has focused on Silver Spring’s commercial properties and multi-family housing, his students have drilled down in into Silver Spring’s residential subdivisions. A 1994 master’s thesis in American Studies examined Silver Spring’s development between 1920 and 1955. Despite providing what at first blush appears to be a comprehensive history of suburban development, the author failed to address racial restrictive covenants, African Americans, or the stark demographic reality (virtually all white, except for domestic servants) of the area in which the subdivisions were developed.
Other erasures are less accessible. These include the many racial micro-aggressions people of color experience when walking through downtown Silver Spring, i.e., heritage tour signs that omit segregation from celebratory narratives about local businesses during Silver Spring’s “heyday” and narratives that minimize the role Jim Crow segregation played in that period.
A very public example of erasure is embedded in one of five murals comprising a public artwork installed in the 1990s. The Silver Spring “Memory Wall” is a series of murals in Acorn Urban Park depicting five important themes/aspects in Silver Spring’s history: Francis Preston Blair’s 1840s mansion; the Civil War; Silver Spring’s first armory on the eve of World War I; the B&O Railroad station in 1941; and, the rehabilitated 1938 Silver Shopping Center.
The murals’ content was developed among the artist, Mame Cohalan, a Silver Spring residents’ arts advisory board, and officials in Montgomery County’s Planning Department. Planning Department memoranda note that the murals were the “first attempt to realistically depict Silver Spring’s history in a representational public art form.” Planners memorialized Cohalan’s observations that the historical photographs she was using to design the murals failed to show people of color: “The artist would like to explore having more cultural diversity in the 20th century images.” Cohalan confirmed this in an interview I did with her in April 2017.
The Silver Spring Memory Wall, with its insertion of black bodies into spaces and in a time where they never would have been found establishes erasure by creating an imaginary visual narrative. African Americans who see the murals recognize that African Americans could not have stood alongside whites on the train platform in 1941. Or 1951. Or even 1961.
Protesting Invisibility in Acorn Park
In early 2017, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission began soliciting public input for proposed renovations in Acorn Park. A pair of local nonprofit organizations, IMPACT Silver Spring (IMPACT) and Showing Up for Racial Justice Montgomery County (SURJ), collaborated with me to organize an event to protest the invisibility of African Americans in the ways history is presented in the park and to take direct action with Montgomery County officials. Our efforts culminated Saturday June 10, 2017, in Acorn Park.
The Acorn Park protesting invisibility event was inspired by an account in architectural historian Dell Upton’s 2015 book, What Can and Can’t be Said: Race, Uplift, and Monument Building in the Contemporary South. Upton recounted efforts by residents of Savannah, Georgia, who protested against invisibility in Savannah’s commemorative landscape by demanding an official African American monument. Silver Spring’s African American residents had much in common with their Savannah counterparts: both communities celebrated their white supremacist histories in public monuments and historical representations while omitting official commemorations dedicated to people of color.
Representatives from IMPACT, SURJ, and I met several times in the weeks leading up to the June 10 event. We drafted publicity flyers and shared them via social media and in businesses near Acorn Park. We also drafted a petition letter addressed to county officials, which participants could sign, and a postcard with a brief excerpt from the petition letter and space for individualized comments.
In addition to inviting the community at large, we also asked a couple of lifelong residents of Lyttonsville to share their memories of life in Jim Crow Silver Spring and about how they think history and historic preservation are produced in the community. They recalled being excluded from Silver Spring’s businesses and living in a neighborhood that lacked running water and paved roads until well into the Cold War. And, they described the marginalization they felt by being excluded from published histories and Silver Spring’s commemorative landscape.
After the dialogue in Acorn Park concluded, participants were invited to move to Bump ‘N Grind, a coffee shop in the next block. The store’s owners helped to publicize the event and they allowed us to set up several laptops connected to the store’s wi-fi where participants could file their comments on Acorn Park directly to the Montgomery County Department of Parks via the agency’s open town hall web portal. Conversations begun in the park continued inside the store and seven people filed comments electronically.
Suggestions for making Acorn Park’s history more inclusive included adding another bank of murals above the existing ones in the Memory Wall; commissioning a sculpture of a local civil rights leader; and, replacing the existing signage that celebrates Silver Spring’s white supremacist founders with signs that also discuss slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the civil rights actions (demonstrations, litigation, etc.) that occurred in Silver Spring during the 1960s.
The Montgomery County Department of Parks plans to hold one meeting with community members later in 2017 to present the results of the agency’s outreach efforts. Parks agency officials expect to deliver finalized plans to the Montgomery County Planning Board for approval in early 2018. The loose coalition formed to produce the protesting invisibility event in Acorn Park will be following future releases by county officials and we plan to attend all additional public meetings.
We hope that the example set in Acorn Park will be a model for additional efforts in Silver Spring and elsewhere in Montgomery County to reframe how history and historic preservation are produced to make them more inclusive and accurate. Silver Spring’s downtown privileges white experiences at the expense of African Americans, presenting a white-washed history that overlooks the ways white residents accumulated capital and influence by excluding African Americans. Future efforts may be directed at replacing existing heritage trail markers and creating public art that engages and strives to tell the story of all of Silver Spring’s residents, including the many new immigrants who have moved here since the turn of the twenty-first century. One step I plan to take is to work with a Spanish language interpreter to adapt my existing Black History Tour to create a bilingual tour that helps create attachments to the community for new residents.
Silver Spring, like many communities throughout the nation, has invested heavily in promoting its diversity as part of its brand. That diversity is of recent vintage and it was not easily achieved. By protesting invisibility in Acorn Park we took steps towards reframing Silver Spring’s history and opening public spaces for a more honest and inclusive history. For additional information on our efforts to protest and erase invisibility in Silver Spring, please check out our website, Invisible Montgomery.
David Rotenstein is a Silver Spring, Md., consulting historian who is writing a book on gentrification, race, and housing history in Decatur, Ga.