Silver Spring Civil Rights Museum???

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This entry was posted in Silver Spring and tagged historic preservationHistoryMontogmery County (Md.) by David Rotenstein.

Crivella’s Wayside Inn. Tucked away in the 1000-block of East West Highway near downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, this former restaurant was the scene of non-violent civil rights protests between 1962 and 1965. Montgomery County in 2006 bought the former Crivella’s Wayside Inn. After holding listening sessions with members of Silver Spring’s historic Black community, county leaders worked with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History to collect stories, artifacts, and design exhibits to tell the story of Silver Spring’s Black communities, from colonial plantations and enslavement through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement.

That’s what a journalist writing about a new Silver Spring Civil Rights Museum might have written had there been a museum developed in the former Crivella’s space. Instead, Montgomery County officials demolished the former restaurant and erased its history. This post explores a lost opportunity for Montgomery County to confront its segregationist history and seek reconciliation with its African American residents, past and present.

Crivella’s Wayside Inn

In early 1962, a U.S. Department of Labor employee whose office had recently moved to Silver Spring from Washington decided to have lunch at nearby restaurant. Just a few weeks earlier, the Montgomery Council had enacted an open accommodations law making it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race.

Crivella’s was owned by Samuel A. Crivella Sr. (1904-1980). His parents, Nunzio and Sarah Crivella, were Italian immigrants who settled in Baltimore in 1901. Nunzio identified himself as a butcher in immigration documents. He became a grocer in the United States. By 1910, the family was living on H Street N.E. in Washington, D.C.

H Street was was a diverse ethnic community with many European immigrants: German and Russian Jews and Italians. Nunzio quickly accumulated enough wealth to begin buying several properties in the corridor. He opened his own grocery store and his family lived in homes they owned.

Crivella’s Market operated at 10th and H streets for several years. Nunzio’s sons joined him in the business and they traded as N. Crivella and Sons: Joseph (born in Italy in 1896) and later Samuel (born in Baltimore in 1904). Nunzio and Sarah’s other son, Tony, becacme a barber. The couple also had two daughters, Rose and Jenny.

According to an obituary, Nunzio Crivella retired in 1932 and died a decade later, in 1942. His sons, Joseph and Sam, succeeded him in the family business.

By the late 1930s, Sam and a partner, Louis Pisapia, appear to have been renting a Georgia Avenue storefront on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring, just north of the District of Columbia. He called it the “Wayside Market.” In the late 1930s, the market appeared in several newspaper articles, including one in 1937 about a robbery. In 1944, the federal government ordered the store closed for three weeks for violating war rationing regulations.

Around the same time that the Wayside Market was operating, a restaurant in a new building on East-West Highway was opening up. According to newspaper coverage of its liquor license applications, it was called the “Wayside Inn.” There is no available documentation to show a connection to Crivella prior to 1948.

Samuel Crivella obituary photo. The Washington Post, May 10, 1980.

In July 1948, Sam Crivella bought a rectangular lot at 1008 East-West Highway. Already the site of the “Wayside Inn,” Crivella kept the name (perhaps because he might have had a financial interest in it before buying the real estate) and continued to do business there until he retired in the late 1950s.

Sam Crivella and his wife Roselea had two children: a son, Samuel Jr., and a daughter, Mary. The junior Sam Crivella took his father’s place as the restaurant’s manager. The elder Crivella had already stepped away from the restaurant and was enjoying his retirement when the family’s business began appearing in court documents and headlines, his daughter told me in 2017.

Samuel Crivella Jr. was in charge of the restaurant in early 1962 when the Montgomery County Council enacted an open accommodations law. The law prohibited discrimination on the basis of race in public places in the county, including parks, hospitals, lodging establishments, and “all restaurants, soda fountains and other eating or drinking establishments.” Prior to that point, business owners could serve or decline to serve anyone they wished.

Montgomery County Open Accommodations Law.

The new law, titled “Elimination of Discrimination in Places of Public Accommodation” (Ordinance No. 4-120), became effective in February 1962, a few months after the U.S. Department of Labor moved several hundred office workers from downtown Washington, D.C., to Silver Spring.

Office building at 8701 Georgia Avenue, Silver Spring, Maryland. Shortly after the building was completed, the U.S. Department of Labor announced that it was leasing space there and in another building on Eastern Avenue. The move involved 620 employees, including 150 to 200 African Americans. This eight-story modern office building was designed by Washington architect Edwin Weihe. According to the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Office, the building is historically significant for its architecture: its design by Weihe and as an “early local example of the glass curtain wall office building.”

More than 200 African Americans were among the agency staff transferred. That point wasn’t lost on journalists who noted that Silver Spring was rigidly segregated. “Silver Spring has a very small Negro population,” wrote the Washington Post in October 1961. “A recent study by the Montgomery County Human Relations Commission showed that some eating establishments will accept Negro patronage and some will not.”

The Washington Post, October 17, 1961.

The Black press at the time was more blunt in its take on the move. Jet magazine reported in November 1961, “More than 300 Negroes were among 1,000 Labor Dept. employees shifted from Washington to new work quarters in exclusive, nearly all-white Silver Spring.” The headline read, “Goldberg Integrates Swank White Md. Suburb.”

Crivella’s Wayside Inn became the first battleground where the county’s new public accommodations law was challenged and Department of Labor employees led the charge.

Integrating Silver Spring: Roscoe Nix and Crivella’s

“Denying that the shift is a calculated attempt to integrate suburbia, a Department spokesman said Labor Sec. Arthur J. Goldberg is not unhappy at what he called ‘an unintended dividend of social progress,’” wrote Jet magazine, in its coverage of the Department of Labor’s Silver Spring move. There’s a direct through line connecting the fall 1961 agency move to the 1962 Montgomery County Open Accommodations law to the civil rights actions that took place at Crivella’s starting in the spring of 1962.

Roscoe Nix. Source: Montgomery County Volunteer Center.

Roscoe Nix (1921-2012) was born in Greenville, Alabama. He attended Alabama A&M University for three years before enlisting in the army during World War II. After the war, he graduated from Howard University. He was working in the Department of Labor in 1961 when his office relocated to Silver Spring.

Historian Bruce Johansen interviewed Nix for a dissertation on Silver Spring. He recounted the decision in 1962 to eat at Crivellas. Johansen wrote,

Roscoe Nix was well aware that Montgomery County had passed the ordinance and knew of the tavern exemption, but mainly because Crivella’s Wayside Restaurant was not a bar, he could see no reason why he and an African American friend should not lunch at the downtown Silver Spring family-owned business. “I had a friend who was a minister who came out to have lunch with me one day,” he remembers. “We were looking for a place to eat lunch and spotted one.” The friend asked if they were welcome to go inside, to which Nix replied, “Sure, we can go in there.” So they did. He recounts what happened next:

We went in there and immediately this waitress came over and told us ‘all of these places are reserved, so you can’t sit down.’ So we left. He [the friend] said, ‘I think she’s lying.’ So what we did, we had a friend who looked Caucasian and we decided that we were going to go in there at around 11:45, this may have been a couple of days or a week later even. And we said to her, ‘Get something on the table, whatever it is.’ The quickest thing she could get was something she didn’t like, onion soup.

After Peggy, a co-worker from the Labor Department, had placed her order, Roscoe entered with a second African American woman friend. This other woman, he said, “was obviously black. And the two of us, we went in and she [Peggy] said, ‘Come on over and have a seat.’ The waitress said, ‘you can’t sit there.’ And we said, ‘Why?’” At their request, the waitress brought the manager to them. “He said, ‘This is a private club,’” to which Peggy responded, “Well, I’m not a member of the club.” The manager told Peggy that there would be no charge for her soup and then called the police. As Nix remembers, the officer was polite but said that there was nothing he could do about the refusal of service. “Trying to be nice, he said, ‘Well, you know, they can refuse to serve you. They can refuse to serve a dirty white man.’ So we left.” Bruce Johansen, Imagined Pasts, Imagined Futures: Race, Politics, Memory, and the Revitalization of Downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, pp. 319-320.

That episode triggered three years of proceedings before the Montgomery County Human Relations Commission and litigation. It is hailed as a pivotal point in Montgomery County and Silver Spring’s civil rights history. The subsequent protests included sit-ins and demonstrations that attracted Washington civil rights leader Julius Hobson.

Baltimore Afro-American, May 5, 1962.

Roscoe Nix’s leadership in that moment set him on a trajectory to spend the remainder of his life in civil rights. He left the Labor Department and went to work for the U.S. Justice Department’s Community Relations Service, which focused on conflict resolution in cities experiencing civil unrest. He became the Maryland Human Rights Commission’s executive secretary in the late 1960s and in 1974 he became the first African American elected to the Montgomery County School Board. Nix also served as the Montgomery County Chapter of the NAACP president for a decade (1989-1990) and in 2001 he was inducted into the Montgomery County Human Rights Hall of Fame.

Yet, despite the significant events that took place at Crivella’s, in downtown Silver Spring there are no commemorative plaques, markers, or monuments celebrating Nix’s achievements and the civil rights movement in the Washington suburb.

The Silver Spring Civil Rights Museum

The Crivella family sold the restaurant in 1978. They rented the space to a series of businesses, including a car rental agency and video store, before selling the property in 2006 to Montgomery County. The building had been surveyed in for the Silver Spring Central Business District Historic Sites Survey. The historic preservation consultants working under contract to the Montgomery County Planning Department documented the former Crivella’s restaurant in a three-page Maryland Historic Trust Determination of Eligibility Form.

Former Crivella’s restaurant, 1008 East-West Highway. Maryland Historic Trust Determination of Eligibility Form, 2002.

According to the survey, which was published in 2002, the property was not eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. The form contained no narrative statement about the building’s history. According to the survey,

This is a 1-story brick building that has been heavily altered. It has a flat roof that has been decorated with a small asphalt shingled porch roof supported by wrought iron railings. The majority of the structure has been faced with T-11 siding and all windows and doors have been replaced with large aluminum sash insulated windows.

2002 Historic Resources Survey form.

Montgomery County government held onto the vacant building for several years before demolishing it in 2008 or 2009 to complete a new pedestrian master plan for the neighborhood. The county rebranded the new space “Bottleworks Lane” to commemorate two historic bottling works that had been located nearby. A local blogger captured its opening in 2009 with local dignitaries (Reemberto Rodriguez, Jamie Raskin, Isiah Leggett, Chris Van Hollen, and Nancy Floreen, left to right) cutting a string with plastic bottles suspended from it.

Bottleworks Lane Ribbon cutting ceremony, December 18, 2009. Dan Reed on Flickr.

Montgomery County lost a tremendous opportunity to tell Roscoe Nix’s story and the history of the civil rights movement’s efforts to strangle Jim Crow in Silver Spring. To learn about segregation in Silver Spring, the Black experience, Roscoe Nix, and the civil rights era, folks need to read obscure dissertations and academic articles. They won’t find these stories in the downtown Silver Spring Heritage Trail markers or in books about Silver Spring history or in public art commemorating other notable Silver Spring residents and events.

Isn’t it about time Silver Spring stepped up and confronted its racist past and its racist presentation of history and celebrated the community’s significant civil rights achievements?

Former Crivella’s Wayside Inn site/Bottleworks Lane, August 2016.

© 2020 D.S. Rotenstein

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