There’s more to fight­ing racism than get­ting rid of a Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ment

Historian David Roten­stein on the white su­prem­a­cists who shaped Mont­gomery County

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Out­look@wash­post.com

Mont­gomery County Ex­ec­u­tive Isiah Leggett an­nounced this past week that a con­tro­ver­sial statue com­mem­o­rat­ing the Con­fed­er­acy has been sold and will be moved off pub­lic prop­erty in Rockville, Md. The news capped al­most two years of de­bate that be­gan af­ter Dy­lann Roof mur­dered nine peo­ple in a his­toric African Amer­i­can church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015.

Mont­gomery County was one of many ju­ris­dic­tions wrestling, in the wake of Roof’s crime, with what to do with sym­bols cel­e­brat­ing the Con­fed­er­acy: South Carolina re­moved the Con­fed­er­ate flag from its state­house, Yale scrubbed the name of seg­re­ga­tion­ist John C. Cal­houn from a build­ing, and the Alexan­dria City Coun­cil in Vir­ginia voted to re­name Jef­fer­son Davis High­way. Mont­gomery needed a new home for the statue, plus ap­proval from the Mary­land His­tor­i­cal Trust and the Rockville His­toric District Com­mis­sion to re­move it. White’s Ferry on the Po­tomac even­tu­ally agreed to take it; now, the life-size bronze sol­dier will be seen only by cus­tomers of the 19th-cen­tury ferry and peo­ple in­ten­tion­ally trekking to visit it.

But ditch­ing a cen­tury-old memo­rial — cel­e­brat­ing a pe­riod long past, built by peo­ple long dead — doesn’t ad­dress other, more sub­tle mark­ers of white supremacy, in­clud­ing the county’s legacy of seg­re­gated hous­ing in res­i­den­tial sub­di­vi­sions and apart­ment com­mu­ni­ties.

One such ex­am­ple is Sil­ver Spring’s E. Brooke Lee Mid­dle School. Es­tab­lished in 1966, the school is named for Col. Ed­ward Brooke Lee (1892-1984), a former Mary­land sec­re­tary of state and a founder of the Mary­land-Na­tional Cap­i­tal Park and Plan­ning Com­mis­sion. Lee was Lin­coln con­fi­dant Fran­cis Pre­ston Blair’s great-grand­son and the scion of a re­gional po­lit­i­cal dy­nasty. His­tory books and aca­demic ar­ti­cles uni­formly de­scribe him as the fa­ther of mod­ern Sil­ver Spring.

Though Lee spent much of his life in pol­i­tics, his wealth came from real es­tate. His com­pa­nies bought up large swaths of former farm­land in North­west Wash­ing­ton and lower Mont­gomery County. He then sub­di­vided the land and gave new names to the de­vel­op­ments: Fair­way, Coun­try Club View and For­est Hills of Sligo Park, to name a few.

That his­tory is well doc­u­mented. Less well known is the fact that Lee at­tached racial re­stric­tive covenants to all his sub­ur­ban prop­er­ties. Th­ese pro­hib­ited African Amer­i­cans from buy­ing or rent­ing homes in the sub­di­vi­sions. They could live in th­ese new sub­urbs only if they were do­mes­tic ser­vants.

By the time the Supreme Court ruled racial re­stric­tive covenants un­en­force­able in 1948, most of Sil­ver Spring — from the District line west to Rock Creek and north to White Oak — was cov­ered by racially re­stricted sub­di­vi­sions, many of them de­vel­oped by Lee and his busi­ness part­ners.

It took an ad­di­tional 20 years for Mont­gomery County to pass an open-hous­ing law pro­hibit­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion based on race. As county lead­ers were de­bat­ing new civil rights mea­sures, Lee was rail­ing against them in lo­cal news­pa­pers. As late as 1967, the sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian was call­ing on res­i­dents to re­ject what he de­scribed as “Anti-White laws” that he per­ceived as a threat to the sub­urbs he built. “De­seg­re­ga­tion is not the an­swer,” Lee wrote that spring.

The dis­crim­i­na­tory prac­tices that de­fined Lee’s time in Mont­gomery County had re­gion­wide ef­fects. With few places open to them, African Amer­i­cans had to crowd into com­mu­ni­ties like Lyt­tonsville, which had no paved streets or run­ning wa­ter un­til the 1960s. Black em­ploy­ees of fed­eral agen­cies with of­fices in the county couldn’t live where they worked. In tes­ti­mony sub­mit­ted to the Mont­gomery County Hu­man Re­la­tions Com­mis­sion in 1966, As­sis­tant Post­mas­ter Gen­eral Richard Mur­phy de­scribed the hu­man face of the hous­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion Lee fa­vored: “Ne­gro em­ploy­ees can be and are as­signed to work in Mont­gomery County. They can sort mail there, they can de­liver let­ters there, they can serve the peo­ple who live there, but too of­ten they can’t live there.”

Lee’s seg­re­ga­tion­ist lega­cies re­main im­printed in Mont­gomery County more than two gen­er­a­tions af­ter le­gal and de facto dis­crim­i­na­tion ended. They’re vis­i­ble in the more than 40 black ham­lets such as Lyt­tonsville and Sandy Spring, where re­silience in the face of racism forged strong com­mu­nity bonds. Ur­ban-re­newal pro­grams and in­creased sub­ur­ban di­ver­sity, in large part due to civil rights laws and lit­i­ga­tion since 1970, have made th­ese neigh­bor­hoods more het­eroge­nous. Those ugly lega­cies sur­vive in the con­cen­tra­tion of poverty in apart­ment com­mu­ni­ties like the Flower Branch com­plex in Sil­ver Spring, where seven peo­ple died and 39 were in­jured in a 2016 ex­plo­sion that law­suits al­lege was a re­sult of ne­glect. And se­gre­ga­tion lives on in Toby­town, a his­tor­i­cally black, im­pov­er­ished neigh­bor­hood that has been im­plor­ing the county for a bus stop for more than 30 years. Half its res­i­dents can’t af­ford cars.

Me­mo­ri­als and mon­u­ments to Lee and his seg­re­ga­tion­ist con­tem­po­raries are harder to ad­dress and erase be­cause they rep­re­sent peo­ple and ac­tions of a much more re­cent past than the Civil War — and be­cause the con­se­quences are struc­tural and re­main in place. We can’t box up ev­ery legacy of white supremacy that per­sists in the county and ship them off to White’s Ferry. But we can reeval­u­ate Mont­gomery County’s his­tory to con­front racial bi­ases in the his­tor­i­cal record. At a min­i­mum, ex­ist­ing nar­ra­tives like the “About Our School” page at Col. E. Brooke Lee Mid­dle School should re­flect Lee’s role in seg­re­gat­ing the county.

The struc­tural racism Amer­i­cans see to­day — in polic­ing, in hous­ing and em­ploy­ment dis­crim­i­na­tion, in anti-Mus­lim and anti-Semitic hate crimes — is a legacy of ear­lier white supremacy. To un­der­stand th­ese is­sues, we need to con­nect them to their his­tor­i­cal an­tecedents. This can hap­pen by lever­ag­ing ex­ist­ing pub­lic his­tory pro­grams in our schools, gov­ern­ment agen­cies and or­ga­ni­za­tions like the Mont­gomery County His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety. By learn­ing from the past, we can el­e­vate his­tory be­yond col­or­ful sto­ries about by­gone times and use it to break the cy­cle of racism. David Roten­stein is a pub­lic his­tory con­sul­tant and a former Mont­gomery His­toric Preser­va­tion Com­mis­sion chair­man. He lives in Sil­ver Spring.

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