Brother Harvey Matthews is a living measure of Montgomery County’s conscience. His family had lived in Bethesda’s River Road African American community since the first half of the twentieth century. He was just a teenager when his family was displaced in the late 1950s by encroaching segregated residential subdivisions and light industrial development. Now, at age 74, he also may be the lone surviving member from that community who has firsthand knowledge of the Moses Cemetery that now lies beneath a Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission apartment building’s parking lot. Harvey’s story is Montgomery County’s story.
Sometime in the years around World War II, his parents moved to the place where his mother’s family rented property. Harvey’s grandfather, James Christian, worked in construction. “I think they lived in the house sitting by us or adjacent house that was beside our house,” Harvey recalled in a 2017 interview. Harvey’s father Milton G. Matthews worked for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission and like many African Americans living in Montgomery County, he did several other jobs to make ends meet, including raising and training hunting dogs. Harvey’s mother, Dorothy, worked in the local carry out in addition to keeping house and raising children.
Harvey remembers growing up in a two-story white frame house. Outbuildings on the property included a barn and a garage; the family raised livestock in addition to the dogs Harvey’s father kept. According to 1950s city directories, the Matthews family lived at 5263 River Road. The family had a telephone and, according to the directories, they owned the property.
“I think we owned that property that was on River Road,” Harvey said in 2017. But for African Americans in the twentieth century there were many types of “ownership.” One of the most nefarious ways white real estate speculators found to profit from African Americans in a racialized environment was to sell properties at exorbitant prices to them or to sell them properties in a contract ownership relationship in what basically amounted to a rent-to-own arrangement. African Americans paid inflated amounts towards what they believed were mortgages but instead were little more than poorly concealed rental payments.
Their tenures at these properties were at the whim of the property owners. There do not appear to be any land records filed in Montgomery County indicating that Harvey’s family ever owned property in River Road. It’s likely that his family had a contract ownership arrangement and they were displaced when the property owner decided to cash in on the development opportunities that led to buildouts in nearby Westbard and more residential density.
Though white speculators and entrepreneurs found opportunity in this period of growth, the African American residents in River Road faced displacement. Harvey’s family moved to Northwest Washington; others went to Tobytown, Scotland, Poolesville, and Rockville. He recalls hearing stories about whites tricking property owners into selling their land. “I think the white developers came in and flashed money in their faces. They came and got some of them intoxicated,” he said. “They got them to sign waivers of Xs and marks on paper and they didn’t know really what they were doing and with lack of education, they didn’t know.”
Before his family left River Road, they lived in a tight-knit community surrounded by entrepreneurs and laborers, children and the elderly. Harvey recalls hustling with his friends running errands for pennies, caddying at Kenwood Country Club, and playing among the homemade vernacular headstones in the Moses Cemetery.
Harvey’s neighbors included Pinkney Hatton, who owned a taxi service and who made runs into West Virginia for fruits and vegetables which he sold in the community. Harvey described Hatton as “the big shot of River Road” because “he was wealthy.”
Then there was the Watkins family who lived in a house next to the Macedonia Baptist Church. Harvey fondly recalls Cyrus Watkins. “Mr. Cy was a man and a half,” Harvey said. As Watkins got older he enjoyed watching traffic pass by on River Road. Sometimes Mr. Cy called Harvey over from his perch. “I used to go to the store for him and he always never failed, he always used to give me two shiny pennies.”
Cyrus and Ella Watkins’ granddaughter still plays piano at Macedonia Baptist Church.
The B&O Railroad’s Georgetown Branch ran through the community. Harvey remembers listening for the train whistle. Sometimes the conductors would toss bags to Harvey with fruit and other snacks. Other times, the train’s arrival meant it was time for an excursion. “Sometimes they would allow me to get on the train and I would ride down to Georgetown with them and whatnot and they’d bring me back,” he remembered.
Life was mostly good on River Road. Harvey’s family had running water because they lived adjacent to the Kenwood subdivision. Other families in the community had to rely on well water and outdoor sanitation facilities. Because of the railroad’s proximity, families were able to scavenge coal for heating and cooking.
For recreation and shopping, Harvey and his friends and family went into Washington. They’d catch one of Mr. Hatton’s cabs to the streetcar stop at Wisconsin and Western avenues and ride down to Seventh Street. There they could shop, eat in restaurants, and the women could get their hair done, Harvey explained. Montgomery County was still rigidly segregated and many restaurants, stores, movie theaters, and bowling alleys provided separate service to African Americans — if they were willing at all to take Black money.
Though Harvey has retained close ties to the River Road area and Macedonia Baptist Church, where he is a trustee, he still carries powerful memories of watching his community be erased by suburbanization. After the developers came in with quick money and the families left, their homes quickly followed. “As fast as they moved somebody out, they would knock them houses down and industrial was — they were just like a buzzard flapping on something dead, you know,” Harvey said. “They pounced right on it.”
All that remains of River Road’s African American community are Harvey’s memories, the Moses Cemetery site, and the Macedonia Baptist Church. Everything else has been erased. About the community he affectionately recalls, “All we knew was River Road, Blacks lived there and they were civilized people.”
Sources: Harvey Matthews; Maryland Archives. #BlackHistoryDay2018