Profiles in Montgomery County Black History: Cynthia Parker

Cynthia Collymore Parker came to Washington in the 1950s to attend Howard University. Parker grew up in Westchester County in the New York City suburbs. Her father, Earl Collymore, was a dentist. When he bought a home in 1930 in an all-white residential subdivision, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on the lawn. The episode helped make Parker’s father a civil rights leader in his community.

“My father came out in his pajamas with his camera, Brownie box camera, and we have the picture of a burning cross,” Parker recalled in an interview. “And they had headlines all over the place: ‘Down South Up North’.”

Parker began college in New York and transferred to Howard University. She went to work for the District of Columbia as a juvenile court probation officer after graduating. After ten years in the job, someone told Parker about a job opening as a school social worker in Montgomery County.

“I started out with the twenty-eight Title I schools and they were all over the county, from Poolesville down to Takoma Park, you know, throughout the county,” Parker said.

Once she was hired, Parker had trouble finding a home in rigidly segregated Montgomery County so she signed up with a nonprofit organization, Suburban Maryland Fair Housing. The organization founded in the early 1960s paired Montgomery County property owners with prospective buyers and renters regardless of their color.

Parker bought a home in Silver Spring in 1966 that had been built in a subdivision created in 1938. Its developers were among more than 50 who between 1904 and 1948 attached racial restrictive covenants to their properties. During an interview in 2016, Parker pulled a copy of her home’s original deed from behind the counter in her bookstore in downtown Silver Spring. It reads, “No portion of the said land or building erected thereon shall ever be rented, leased, sold, transferred, conveyed to or otherwise vested in or in trust for any negro or any person of negro descent or extraction, except that such person may occupy the same in a menial capacity with the owner, or as caretaker.”

“This is still attached to the original deeds, even if they’re not — they don’t take these off of them,” she said.

Excerpt from original deed to Cynthia Parker’s property recorded in 1939. The covenant barring African Americans from buying the property was the first of six covenants attached to the property.

Parker told me a powerful story about a visitor she had in the 1980s. A young woman knocked on her door. “I used to live across the street,” she said. “And I’m so glad to see that you’re still living here because my family, my parents, were prejudiced against negroes.” The woman’s family sold their home and moved farther out in Montgomery County after Parker moved to the street.

Parker witnessed Montgomery County’s transformation from a rigidly segregated Washington suburb to an ethnically diversity collection of communities. She described the Silver Spring into which she moved as a “white bread neighborhood” with no diversity. “It’s just amazing, the changes I’ve seen just in this immediate community,” Parker explained. “You know there have been changes all throughout this county.”

Silver Spring Books in 2017.

After spending 31 years with Montgomery County, Parker retired and she became a fixture on Bonifant Street in downtown Silver Spring as a co-owner of Silver Spring Books. Health issues pushed her into retirement and the store closed in 2017.

The store’s closing in 2017 came as a shock to Silver Spring residents. I had interviewed Parker a few times since late 2014 for my research on gentrification and its relationships to history and historic preservation.  The business was struggling to pay its bills in an upgrading downtown where commercial churn was being fueled by demographic changes, skyrocketing rents, and other factors associated with gentrification-related displacement.

Parker saw the number of independent bookstores in downtown Silver Spring shrink from half a dozen to just a few. After Borders moved in as an anchor tenant in the massive redevelopment at the turn of the twentieth century, Silver Spring Books was the sole survivor. Changes in retailing behavior provided the final push, one Parker saw coming years before the store closed. “There definitely hasn’t been improvement,” Parker said in 2014. “In fact, now with, as I was saying, with people buying on the Internet and Amazon.”

When we spoke for the first time in December 2014, the Purple Line light rail project and its potential to create substantial disruptions in the Bonifant Street corridor was Parker’s main concern. She didn’t have to go far to see the changes underway in downtown Silver Spring. From the bookstore counter, she could see the new library and senior housing rising across the street:

This was, across the street you see the restaurants over there and what they are? Because when I moved here this was what I call a whitebread neighborhood. You didn’t see any ethnic restaurants, you know. Maybe Italian. I was trying to think, there must have been an Italian restaurant somewhere. But you know what I’m saying, you didn’t see anything like this. This is very changed, downtown Silver Spring.

The view of Bonifant Street from inside Silver Spring Books, December 2014.

Sources: Cynthia Parker; Montgomery County Archives; Maryland Archives; Silver Spring Regional Center.

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