Indifference bordering on malice

The latest episode from NPR’s On the Media focuses on Africatown, the Alabama community founded by people kidnapped from Africa and brought to the United States aboard the ship that historians believe was the last ship to deliver Black “Cargo” into enslavement. Africatown has been in the media for much of this year, first for the brief period when people believed that place where the ship, the Clotilda, was scuttled in 1860 had been found. And then again with the publication of Zora Neale Hurston’s interview with the Clotilda’s last survivor, Cudjo Lewis: Barracoon.

Africatown and Montgomery County, Maryland, are seemingly worlds apart. Yet, listening to the episode, I find that our two communities share some common histories: environmental racism, Jim Crow, and historical erasure:

Every effort to preserve the past and celebrate the present seems to be met with an indifference so profound it borders on malice — host Brooke Gladstone.

Indifference bordering on malice: Lyttonsville. River Road. Tobytown. Scotland.

bridge-2017

A Recap of The Talbot Avenue Bridge Park Pop-Up

About 80-100 people ultimately made it onto and across the Talbot Avenue Bridge Saturday April 21 for the inaugural Talbot Avenue Bridge Park pop-up civil rights museum. The two-hour event brought people together from all over Montgomery County, including current and former residents of such historically Black communities as River Road and neighboring Lyttonsville.

Though no press attended the event, we benefitted from advance coverage by Washington’s NPR station, WAMU and from a brief feature in Bethesda Beat blog. I would like to thank all of the people who helped pull this off, especially the people who gathered on the bridge to read the text panels, meet new and old neighbors, and learn about the bridge’s history and about the two communities it connected, one a sundown suburb and the other a resilient African-American suburb.

I will be writing more about the event. In the meantime, here is a photo essay documenting the Talbot Avenue Bridge Park’s debut. Stay tuned, there’s more to come!

It all began with a blank bridge. One hour before the event opened I mounted 15 panels on the bridge and on posts at its approaches.

IMPACT Silver Spring contributed a table and other supplies where we had a guest register and where Lyttonsville residents placed information about plans to celebrate the Talbot Avenue Bridge’s 100th birthday.

The panels included text about the area’s history, photos, and interview excerpts from my work in Montgomery County over the past few years.

Harvey Matthews, a former River Road resident, speaks about his erased community as Charlotte Coffield (foreground) of Lyttonsville records his testimony.

Another photo of Harvey Matthews recounting life in Jim Crow Montgomery County and life today. Standing next to him is Lyttonsville’s Patricia Tyson.

The bridge is a unique civil rights landmark where people could learn about Montgomery County’s African American history.

How many museums are dog friendly?

Unlike other museums that rely on recorded sound to add context, we had the real deal. One thing that you can’t get in a traditional museum: the vibrations of a train passing beneath the bridge.

Former River Road resident Harvey Matthews reads one of the panels.

 

The weather couldn’t have been better.

Lyttonsville resident Patricia Tyson had the wonderful idea to dub the collection of chairs set up around the registration table a “conversation corner.”

Archaeologist Tom King (left), Charlotte Coffield (center), and another Silver Spring resident read a panel with a quotation from one of my interviews with Ms. Coffield where she described the bridge’s historical soundscape.

The Talbot Avenue Bridge is a site of conscience. Yesterday’s event fulfilled one of the key elements of sites of conscience: that they are powerful spaces where people can connect with the past and have meaningful discussions about contemporary issues. Invisible Montgomery is a member of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.

Thank you to everyone who helped make this a success. Though it was an organic community event made by the people who attended, I couldn’t have pulled this together without all of the help from my dear wife, Laura, and my friends and partners at IMPACT Silver Spring.

If you attended the event and have pictures to share, please visit this post’s presence on the Invisible Montgomery Facebook page and let us see how you captured the event.

Black places, as we’re learning, are under nearly persistent threat of erasure. Even beyond their physical presence, their tremendous histories, cultural traditions, and institutions, are seldom preserved beyond the memories and artifacts collected by those who lived there. — Purifoy, Danielle. “A Place Called Mebane.” Scalawag (blog), August 8, 2016.

© 2018 D.S. Rotenstein and Invisible Montgomery

The Talbot Avenue Bridge Park (new date)

Imagine it … before it’s gone.

Talbot Bridge Park-newLR.jpeg

The Talbot Avenue Bridge Park is a pop-up tactical (sub)urbanism event designed to bring people together in a historic space to contemplate the past, discuss the present, and plan for the future. Slated for demolition later this year, the Talbot Avenue Bridge is a site of conscience that marks the boundary separating a sundown suburb (Silver Spring) and an African American suburb (Lyttonsville). Experience this space before it disappears.An Invisible Montgomery pop-up event at the Talbot Ave. Bridge spanning the CSX Railroad/Purple Line. For a brief time, Montgomery will have its own 11th Street Bridge Park.

The event is free. For more information and to register, go to Eventbrite or Facebook.

NEW DATE: Saturday April 21.

Time for Truth and Reconciliation in Montgomery County

Does “quiet philanthropy” in Montgomery County erase decades of loud racism that denied African Americans homes, wealth, and opportunities?

Quiet Philanthropy

“A few examples of Gudelsky Family’s ‘Quiet Philanthropy’ serving Downtown Silver Spring” — October 2017 proposal to Montgomery County government.

or

Loud Racism

“No person of any race other than the Caucasian race shall use or occupy any lot or any building, except that this covenant shall not prevent occupancy by a domestic servant of a different race domiciled with an owner or tenant.” — March 1947 by Martha Gudelsky and & other members of the Gudelsky family.

 

Profiles in Montgomery County Black History: Dr. Roland E. Barnes

Credit: The Washington Post.

Dr. Roland E. Barnes only spent a short amount of time in Montgomery County in the 1960s. The Army veteran and accomplished educator played a small but significant part in Montgomery County’s fitful moves towards eliminating housing discrimination.

Roland Edward Barnes was born in North Carolina in 1920. His parents, Roland A. and Lillian, moved to Washington in the 1920s. The elder Barnes was a railroad mail clerk; Mrs. Barnes didn’t work, according to U.S. Census schedules. They rented a home after arriving in Washington and then in 1938, the family bought a home on Columbia Road NW.

Barnes attended Miner Teacher’s College. In 1940, he and Frances Johnson, who was attending Howard University, eloped. They had secretly been married more than year before the Baltimore Afro-American reported on it after Mrs. Barnes graduated in 1941.

The couple moved to New York and began teaching careers. Barnes was teaching sixth grade in Manhattan when he was drafted; he served in the Army as a 1st lieutenant. After his discharge, he received a doctorate in education from Queens College in New York City.

In May 1961, the Montgomery County School Board recruited him to become principal of Travilah Elementary School. He and his wife had been living in a home on Allison St. NW in the District’S Petworth neighborhood that they bought in 1955. When Barnes came to work for Montgomery County, his wife, the County also hired her as a special needs teacher. His commute to the elementary school took nearly an hour each way and the couple in 1961 began looking for a home closer to work.

Roland and Frances Barnes owned a home in this row of houses built in Washington’s Petworth neighborhood in 1929 by developer Morris Cafritz.

An advertisement in the Washington Post caught his eye: it was for a new development off of Seven Locks Road. The subdivision would have cut his commute to school down to 12 minutes. He and his wife signed a contract to buy a house under construction on Charen Lane and paid a $1,000 deposit ($200 cash and an $800 note) for the $26,000 home.

The site was attractive: “It was one of the largest lots in the development, with a stand of trees along the property line in the rear, giving promise of some privacy,” according to later court documents.

Roland and Frances Barnes tried to buy this Rockville home in 1961. The developer didn’t want to sell it to African Americans.

Barnes and his wife returned home from a visit to the model home to find a letter from the sales agent along with Barnes’s check and note. It read, “We are sorry but this deal cannot be consummated at this time.” The developer, Chevy Chase-based Abraham Sind & Associates, had informed the agent that, “unwilling to sell a lot in the development to a Negro.”

Barnes hired attorneys who were able to identify the developer and begin negotiations on behalf of the Barnes family. The developer offered several alternatives, including other sites in the subdivision or in Rockville. Sind informed Barnes that the lot originally desired was unavailable, that it had been sold to another buyer.

In an attempt to settle the case against him, developer Abraham Sind offered to sell the Barnes family this home on a nearby lot. They declined and stuck to their demand to have the original home they wanted to buy.

Testimony in the case revealed that the developer didn’t want to sell a home to Barnes or any other African American because Sind and his partners believed that it would result in a loss in their investment. “They feared that if it were known that they had sold or might sell a house to a Negro, it would be fatal to the profitable development of the subdivision,” the federal courts reported in subsequent litigation.

Barnes refused to accept the offer, which he believed was not equitable. He became the first person to file a complaint with the Federal Housing Administration pursuant to Executive Order 11063 that recently had been issued by President John F. Kennedy. The order prohibited discrimination in housing owned or operated by the federal government as well as loans made by or secured by the federal government.

In addition to the complaint, Barnes sued in federal court. The case wound its way through District Court in Baltimore and it was heard by the Fourth Circuit Appeals Court. In 1965 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

In 1962, the Baltimore Afro-American reported on the Barnes case. The paper quoted Barnes: “This clause as developed by W.C. and A.N. Miller to keep non-whites and Jews out of Spring Valley and other Miller Developments, was adapted by Sind and Cohen to keep colored out of Seven Locks Meadows.” The Miller company developed large subdivisions in Northwest Washington, Bethesda, and Chevy Chase, including Sumner near River Road.

As an African American living in Washington, Barnes was no stranger to racial restrictive deed covenants. The 1955 deed to his Allison Street NW home prohibited the property’s sale, lease, or transfer to “a negro or colored person.” When the Barneses sold the property in 1963, the covenant first attached to the property by developer Morris Cafritz was gone from the deed.

1955 deed to the Allison Street NW home Roland and Frances Barnes bought in 1955. Source: District of Columbia Land Records.

Meanwhile as the litigation proceeded, newspapers reported that Barnes and his wife rented a home in Silver Spring. As the case was working its way through the courts, in 1963 Barnes took a two-year job in Afghanistan. In 1965, after the Supreme Court declined their case, Roland and Frances Barnes bought a home in Kensington. They lived there until moving to Pittsburgh. There, Frances pursued a career as writer and he joined the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh. The couple divorced and Roland Barnes moved to North Carolina where he died in 1997. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Roland and Frances Barnes owned this Kensington home between 1965 and 1971. They sold it and moved to Pittsburgh.

Sources: The Washington Post; Baltimore Afro-American; District of Columbia Land Records; Records of the U.S. Supreme Court; Maryland Archives. #BlackHistoryDay2018

Profiles in Montgomery County Black History: Harvey M. Matthews Sr.

Harvey Matthews, January 2018.

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.

Montgomery County Real Estate Atlas (1959) illustrating probable location of Matthews home. The property owner is identified as C.E. Willett.

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.”

Macedonia Baptist Church vicinity and homes associated with Harvey Matthews’ childhood, c. 1959.

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.

Harvey Matthews prior to testifying before the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission in November 2017.

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

 

 

Profiles in Montgomery County Black History: Evelyn Gunn Horad

Evelyn Horad, May 2017.

Evelyn Horad was born Evelyn Ross in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1927. At age fifteen she moved to Washington with her mother. Evelyn’s mother was one of a tide of young African American women who swept into the District during the 20th century in search of a government job and Evelyn’s goal was to attend Howard University. Over the course of the next half century, Evelyn became part of Washington and Montgomery County’s African American history because of her work in journalism and her 1986 second marriage to Sewell Horad, the son of civil rights leader Romeo Horad Sr.

Evelyn recalls arriving in Washington by bus. Washington at the time was still rigidly segregated and her entire family is light-skinned. “But we’re all fair; you know, we are fair. And when she got off the train coming from Nashville for her government job, they said you go this way,” Evelyn said in an interview in the spring of 2017. “They divided people off and they sent her with the white people. So she went and worked as a white woman till she died.”

Evelyn lived in Washington’s LeDroit Park neighborhood. It was one of the District’s distinctive middle-class Black neighborhoods that helped define Washington as a “Chocolate City.” After graduating from Howard in 1947, Evelyn married her college sweetheart, Richard Gunn. She spent more than decade as a stay-at-home mom before venturing out into the workforce.

Washington in the late 1950s still hadn’t fully shed its Jim Crow discriminatory traditions in everything from housing to public accommodations and employment. Though Evelyn didn’t intentionally identify as white, people who categorize others by first visual impressions believed that she was. She oftentimes didn’t do anything to dissuade them from that. After a successful interview for a job with Pepco, the interviewer asked Evelyn for her resume.

“So she read down where I had gone to Howard and just like that, everything changed,” Evelyn said. “And she tells me, ‘I’m sorry. We’re going to have to put this on hold’.”

Evelyn adapted and she removed Howard from her resume. That meant omitting her college career and only noting that she was a high school graduate. A subsequent interview for an advertising sales position with the Washington Post resulted in a job offer. That led to a successful 26-year career at the Post and it became a sidebar to local journalism history.

A few weeks into her new job, Evelyn attended a meeting where her boss, the advertising manager, went through the usual agenda and then he made an announcement. “And he says, ‘And we are getting ready to hire the first negro,’ black or whatever we were being called and here I am sitting in the room,” Evelyn recalled with a laugh.

“Hmm, no you’re not,” she said to herself.

There were African Americans working at the Post when Evelyn arrived, though none were in the newsroom or other professional positions. “They were planning before I came in, you know,” she said. “They were planning to hire negroes in advertising. They had people working in the Post but not in a thinking job, you know.” Evelyn recalled that the only other people of color she encountered at the company worked as elevator operators, custodians, and in shipping.

During her time at the Post, Evelyn befriended the Graham family and she had a back-office view to some of the most important chapters in Washington and national history. Evelyn’s first husband died in 1974 and she married Sewell Horad in 1986. He was divorced and they had been friends for years.

When Evelyn retired in 1987 as the assistant manager in the advertising department, the Post’s leadership celebrated her career at a party held at the Horad family home in Wheaton. The event drew 250 people, including Katherine Graham, Donald Graham, Effi Barry, and Flaxie Pinkett. Three years later, after a long friendship with Washington Afro-American newspaper women’s editor Mabs Kemp, Evelyn took over the veteran journalist’s society column.

“We ended up calling it ‘Social Pot-Pourri.’ So it covered all the different kinds of social life in the city and there was so much going on then and now,” Evelyn said. Jet magazine, which had reported for years on Evelyn’s social life, wrote in January 1990: “Congratulations to Evelyn Gunn Horad on her new society column, Social Pot-Pourri, in the Washington, D.C., Afro-American newspaper.”

Her first column was published in 1990. Three years later, Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy wrote about Evelyn’s work: “The photographs and stories by Evelyn Horad are probably the only consistently published indication that a polite black society even exists here.”

Evelyn and Sewell Horad, May 2017.

Evelyn wrote for the Afro for about twelve years before retiring. She and Sewell sold their Wheaton home in 2016 and they moved to a nearby retirement community.

Sources: Evelyn Horad; Montgomery County Archives; Patricia Tyson; The Washington Post; The Washington Afro-American; Jet magazine. #BlackHistoryDay2018

Profiles in Montgomery County Black History: Romeo W. Horad Sr.

In the 20th century, the NAACP attacked segregation on several fronts: housing, education, and public accommodations. In Washington, D.C., attorney and real estate broker Romeo W. Horad Sr. (1895-1968) played a pivotal role in ending one of the most significant barriers to African American choice in where to live, the racially restrictive deed covenant. Though Horad’s involvement in that historical chapter is well-known, his time as a Montgomery County resident and civil rights leader is not.

Romeo W. Horad Sr. Undated photo courtesy of Sewell and Evelyn Horad.

Romeo Horad was born in Washington. After serving in the army during World War I, he graduated from Western Reserve University in Ohio and Howard University Law School. Horad went to work in the District of Columbia Recorder of Deeds where he became the agency’s Secretary. While there, he developed the lot and square system still in use today to record real estate.

In 1938, Horad resigned from the District government and obtained a real estate broker’s license. He established a practice in Washington catering to African Americans buying, selling, and renting homes. That same year, he also bought a lot in Wheaton from his wife’s family, the Sewells. Horad obtained a construction loan from Washington-based Perpetual Savings and Loan Association and he built a two-story brick home on University Boulevard. After the home was completed, he and his family moved to Wheaton joining a small community of African Americans who had lived there since the 1880s.

The loan Horad got from Perpetual is important for a number of reasons. His son, Sewell, who also dabbled in real estate told me that whenever his father and his clients required financing, Perpetual was their bank of choice. Founded in Washington in the 1880s, Perpetual was one of the few local banks that lent money to African Americans to buy homes. The bank so valued its African American customers that in the 1950s, it ran display ads in the Washington Afro-American newspaper.

Though he  made Wheaton his home, Horad kept his Northwest Washington real estate office. He began collaborating with a white Realtor, Raphael Urciolo, to help African Americans buy homes in subdivisions with racially restrictive covenants. In 1944 James and Mary Hurd bought a home on Bryant Street in the District’s Bloomingdale neighborhood. The resulting suit by white neighbors and the subsequent appeal in the case, Hurd v. Hodge, became one of three cases the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1948. Known as Shelley v. Kraemer (for the Missouri case), the case rendered racially restrictive covenants unenforceable in the courts. African Americans all across the country were free from one of the most insurmountable barriers to homeownership and wealth accumulation. All of the residential subdivisions surrounding the River Road community had racially restrictive covenants.

Horad turned his efforts to ending segregation, discrimination, and environmental racism in Montgomery County. In 1947 he and Lyttonsville resident Lawrence Tyson and a handful of other African American residents formed the Citizens Council for Mutual Improvement. Their goals included improving the county’s segregated school system (this was six years before Brown v. Board of Education), improving roads in African American communities, providing water and sewerage, and removing the Jim Crow signs in Montgomery County government offices. Their January 1948 appeal to the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners (the precursor to today’s County Council) marked the start of a modern civil rights movement in Montgomery County.

Horad remained active in Montgomery County’s Republican Party throughout his life. After the county moved to the charter system of government and created a county council, Horad ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the new council and as a state delegate. The spacious Horad home in Wheaton with its large yard became a popular place for political and church picnics.

Horad home, Wheaton, Maryland, 2017.

In 1948, after Horad announced his candidacy for the Montgomery County Council, the Washington Evening Star profiled him. “Of his accomplishments, Romeo W. Horad seems proudest of the home he built 10 years ago at 11308 Old Bladensburg road [now University Blvd.], Silver Spring,” reporter John V. Horner wrote. “The air-conditioned, Georgian house is evidence, he says, of what Negroes can do if given the opportunity. To him, it is proof that the race appreciates the advantages of modern living and is entitled to a chance of enjoying them.”

After Horad died in 1968, his son Sewell (a Washington public schoolteacher) moved into the Wheaton home where he had lived while attending Howard University. Sewell Horad lived in Wheaton until 2016 when he and his wife sold the property and moved to a retirement community. When the Montgomery County Planning Department completed its updated plan for Wheaton in 2012, neither Horad nor his home were mentioned by the agency’s Historic Preservation Office. The WTOP transmitter building located across the street, completed after the Horad home, has been a Montgomery County designated historic site since 1989.

Sources: Sewell Horad; Montgomery County Archives; Patricia Tyson; The Washington Post. #BlackHistoryDay2018

When Urban Renewal Actually Was Rural Renewal

But the results invariable the same: what residents described as “Negro Removal.”

The stretch of River Road in the vicinity of Macedonia Baptist Church and the former Moses Cemetery in Bethesda was one of several project areas Montgomery County government targeted for “community renewal.” This was Montgomery County’s attempt to use federal Department of Housing and Urban Development funding in a mostly rural variant of “urban renewal.” Such communities as Tobytown, Scotland, Cabin John, and Emory Grove became project areas where the county purchased properties, displaced residents, demolished buildings, and resold the properties to the private sector for redevelopment.


The county also built infrastructure: paved roads and extended water and sewer lines into historically African American communities that had existed for decades adjacent to white residential subdivisions with these necessities. The infrastructure was something that residents in these communities had asking the county for decades to improve.

Montgomery County “Problem Areas” map published in 1971. Landy Lane is highlighted at the bottom. Credit: Montgomery County Archives.

By the time Montgomery County got into the urban renewal business in 1965, the River Road African American community had already been erased. Segregated — whites-only — residential subdivisions had been closing in on River Road since the 1930s. The forces displacing African American residents from River Road also were fed by industrial development encouraged by county zoning and proximity to the B&O Railroad’s Georgetown Branch. It made some River Road residents feel like they were in tightening vise.

Landy Lane at River Road, November 2017.

River Road was called the “Landy Lane Program Area” by Montgomery County’s urban renewal program. A report produced in 1971 described the erased River Road community:

The Landy Lane Program Area is primarily an industrial and commercial sector in Lower Montgomery County. The few deficient residential units have been eliminated, but this does not call for a change in the treatment recommended by the CRP [Community Renewal Plan]. Namely preparation of a design plan to deal with obsolete and unsightly commercial and industrial uses.

One statement in the report stands out: “The few deficient residential units have been eliminated.” Those “deficient residential units” were homes occupied by families with names like Clipper, Dorsey, Watkins, and Matthews.

Sources: Montgomery County Archives; The Washington Post; Harvey Matthews. #BlackHistoryDay

Note: This post originally appeared on the Save Bethesda African Cemetery Facebook page.