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.

Profiles in Montgomery County Black History: Lawrence Tyson

Lawrence S. Tyson. Photo courtesy of Patricia Tyson.

There were many people who lived in communities like River Road who helped make them resilient and vibrant places despite Jim Crow segregation. In nearby Lyttonsville, Lawrence Tyson (1913-2000) was an important community builder. He was born in Wheaton and attended school in Washington. Like many Montgomery County residents, he worked for the federal government (Government Printing Office). Tyson was active in his church and he was a Mason.

In the years after World War II, Tyson became increasingly active as an advocate for Lyttonsville and other African American communities in Montgomery County. He fought for better schools and equitable infrastructure: providing the county’s African American communities with paved roads, running water, and sewerage. Tyson was one of several civic leaders who formed the Citizens Council for Mutual Improvement. Their appeal in January 1948 to the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners marked the start of modern civil rights activism in Montgomery County. They appealed for equality and demanded an end to the “total disregard for the needs and desires” of Montgomery County’s African Americans.

Tyson was a founder and president of the Lyttonsville Civic Association. When Montgomery County began its Community Renewal Program in 1965, Lyttonsville became one of the first projects. Though it was called “urban renewal,” many of the community’s that were redeveloped in the 1960s and 1970s were rural hamlets. Tyson was a powerful spokesperson and community representative during the redevelopment process.

Lawrence Tyson married Alice Johnson (1914-2004) in 1940 in Virginia. Their daughter, Patricia, still lives in Lyttonsville. Another daughter, Theresa, also lives in Montgomery County.

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

This is the first of several Black History Month posts about important figures in Montgomery County.

Sites of conscience

Sites of conscience are historic places that foster public dialogue on pressing contemporary issues in historical perspective. — Ševčenko, Liz, and Maggie Russell-Ciardi. “Foreword.” The Public Historian 30, no. 1 (February 1, 2008): 9–15.

These are places that bear witness to human rights abuses including genocide, slavery and other violations of freedom. Often the tangible remains of these horrific events have disappeared. — Cameron, Christina. “World Heritage Sites of Conscience and Memory.” In World Heritage Sites and Cultural Diversity, edited by Dieter Offenhäußer, Walther Ch. Zimmerli, and Marie-Theres Albert, 112–19. Germany: German Commission for UNESCO, 2010.

Moses Cemetery Site, Bethesda, Maryland

Rev. Walter Fauntroy (left) offers a libation at the Moses Cemetery site as Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr. (right) reads the known names of ancestors buried there. Rally held November 2017.

In 1911, a lodge founded by African Americans who lived in Washington, D.C.,’s northwest quadrant bought an acre of land off of River Road in suburban Montgomery County, Maryland. The River Road community occupies former farmland between downtown Bethesda and the District of Columbia line. For the first half of the 20th century, River Road — the residents simply called it by the corridor’s name, though whites used the pejorative “Crow Hill: when speaking about the community — remained an independent rural community with farms and homes belonging to people who worked in local businesses or as domestics in nearby white-owned homes. Encroachment by white developers who attached racial restrictive covenants to their suburban developments and industrial development displaced River Road’s residents in the mid-20th century. As the last living African Americans were being displaced, developers excavated, graded, and constructed a surface parking lot at the Moses Cemetery site.

In 2017 advocates responding to Montgomery County’s efforts to “retrofit” the suburban community with plans to construct a parking garage on the Moses Cemetery site began protests and actions to preserve, protect, and memorialize the site.

Talbot Avenue Bridge, Silver Spring, Maryland

The Talbot Avenue Bridge, 2016.

The Talbot Avenue Bridge was constructed in 1918. For much of the 20th century it connected Lyttonsville to Silver Spring. Lyttonsville was an African American hamlet that became Silver Spring’s “other side of the tracks.” Racial restrictive covenants and Jim Crow policies in Silver Spring’s businesses and public spaces squeezed African Americans into Lyttonsville. Lyttonsville was one of several dozen African American hamlets and urban neighborhoods in Montgomery County where poverty, inequality, and nuisances (e.g., trash incinerator and dup, industrial development) were concentrated. In 2016, the Talbot Avenue Bridge became recognized as a space where Silver Spring residents could confront the community’s racialized past and engage in dialogues about the bridge’s various meanings to white and Black Silver Spring residents.

The Talbot Avenue Bridge will be demolished in early 2018 to facilitate construction of the Purple Line light rail corridor.

Montgomery County Media reports on Invisible Montgomery’s Acorn Park event

Montgomery County Media has published a brief video segment on the June 10, 2017, protesting invisibility event in Silver Spring’s Acorn Park.

“I noticed that they had black people there and white people standing in line to catch the train but in 1941 that would not have happened,” lifelong Silver Spring resident Charlotte Coffield told reporter Mitti Hicks, “I think there should be clarification and inclusion of Africans and African American people who participated in the building of Silver Spring.”

Why Invisible Montgomery?

Historian James Loewen in 2016 wrote, “When researching a town or county, if it is overwhelmingly monoracial, decade after decade, ask why.”

Loewen was writing about spaces and the people filling them. His observation about spaces and places can be extended to how communities produce history, historic preservation, and community identities.

This site asks why are some people and their stories invisible in Montgomery County histories and commemorative landscapes. This site will also offer some alternative stories to the ones produced by local historians, historic preservation agencies, community boosters, and the press.

Welcome to Invisible Montgomery.