October 2017

A 2002 Documentary that Whitewashes History Gets a New Coat in 2017

By his own admission, film creator Gottlieb was able to spend most of his life in Silver Spring shielded from the community’s past that included widespread discrimination in the community’s businesses, public buildings, and housing. Even after completing the film, Gottlieb appears to have learned little about the substantial role racism played in shaping his community.

by David S. Rotenstein

“I don’t think that anything real important was left out” — Walter Gottlieb to a newspaper reporter describing his 2002 film, Welcome to Silver Spring: The Story of an American Suburb.[1]


On Sunday September 24, 2017, the AFI Silver Theatre celebrated the fifteenth anniversary of Silver Spring: Story of an American Suburb, the 2002 documentary film about the Washington suburb. The film, by local filmmaker Walter Gottlieb, is a nostalgic vignette of Silver Spring, Maryland’s history. Gottlieb’s film was broadcast by local PBS affiliate WETA and it was widely praised in local media. As the film debuted, questions arose about how it treated the African American experience in Silver Spring and how the production glossed over the widespread discrimination that defined Silver Spring for most of the twentieth century.

Fifteen years later, in a time when white supremacy’s role in contemporary America is being widely debated and when Confederate monuments are being removed from public spaces, these questions about the 2002 film remain. This essay examines the film and its role in reproducing a segregated history in Silver Spring, one that is fully separate and unequal. History and historic preservation in Silver Spring privilege the stories of the community’s white founders and the nostalgia for a romanticized past widely held by many whites who now live there.  Like the published histories of Silver Spring that make no mention of African Americans, segregation, or the civil rights actions that occurred there in the 1960s, Gottlieb’s film has become part of the accepted and officially sanctioned canon of Silver Spring history.[2]

There is a wide chasm separating the nostalgic Silver Spring and the Silver Spring that developed as a sundown suburb. That divide is clearly evident in how Silver Spring residents think about Gottlieb’s film and how the AFI responded to their input. Despite requests from the community to postpone the event and create a program where the film and its makers could be part of a larger discussion about how history is produced in Silver Spring, AFI chose to proceed with the showing. This decision represents a missed opportunity to examine what role race and racism played in creating modern Silver Spring.

Separate and Unequal: Life and Entertainment in Jim Crow Silver Spring

Silver Spring was founded as a residential suburb at the turn of the twentieth century. Its founders had a vision of creating an all-white middle class community to meet an increased demand for housing in the nation’s capital. The community’s leaders, who were the business owners and real estate developers celebrated in Silver Spring: Story of an American Suburb, founded businesses that didn’t serve African Americans; banks that wouldn’t lend to African Americans; and built public buildings where African Americans were unwelcome. Perhaps most insidiously, they created residential subdivisions that enveloped Silver Spring’s business district where African Americans could not buy or rent property.

In the film, Silver Spring is described as a place with some de facto segregation in its commercial district. But, as a narrator says and Gottlieb has told audiences and interviewers, it was nothing like towns in the Deep South. Those statements belie the reality of daily life in Silver Spring for African Americans who could not live within much of a ten-square-mile area comprising Silver Spring unless they were domestic servants occupying the same premises as their employers.

Unlike segregated movie houses in Baltimore, Washington, and Alexandria, segregation in Silver Spring was so complete that no accommodations were offered to African Americans who wanted to see movies.

Desegregation came to Silver Spring fitfully in a series of county laws passed in the 1960s. A 1962 law made it unlawful for businesses to discriminate on the basis of race and a 1968 open housing law opened up apartment communities and single family homes to people of color.

But this article isn’t about housing so much as it is about entertainment and recreation. The African Americans who lived in isolated hamlets on Silver Spring’s margins, places like Lyttonsville and Wheaton Lane, didn’t live in communities recently dubbed “surrogate suburbs” where upwardly mobile African Americans found homes after leaving cities like Washington; instead they were more like rural ghettoes.[3] For the first couple of decades that the Silver Theatre was in business, African Americans were unwelcome there. Unlike segregated movie houses in Baltimore, Washington, and Alexandria, segregation in Silver Spring was so complete that no accommodations were offered to African Americans who wanted to see movies. Contrary to Gottlieb’s assertion in 2002 interviews that they could sit in the back, African Americans seeking nearby entertainment had to go someplace other than Silver Spring.

The Silver Theatre, which the American Film Institute has occupied since 2003, is a Silver Spring landmark. It is a stunning art deco architectural gem and it was the flashpoint that gave rise to an organized historic preservation movement in Silver Spring.[4] It is one of several spaces and buildings white Silver Spring residents remember with love and affection.

AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center. Photo by David Rotenstein.

Longtime African American residents have different memories of the Silver Theatre. “We knew we weren’t welcome there and so we didn’t go,” recalled Lyttonsville resident Charlotte Coffield.  She clearly recalls that Silver Spring’s movie theaters didn’t offer separate seating for African Americans:

If we wanted to see a movie, they would bring maybe once a month or something like that, a film to the elementary school, to the two-room schoolhouse and we would go to the schoolhouse and see the movie. And once in a while they would send buses and take us to Rockville to see a movie. Something like that. Or, we could go into D.C. and see a movie.[5]

Another woman who grew up in Lyttonsville who was younger than Coffield, recalled when the Roth theatre opened its doors to African Americans. “We knew we could go to the Roth theater and we went to the Roth theater,” she recalled in an interview with me in October 2016. “But for some unknown reason, when I was growing up it was always spoken that the Silver Theater, black folks couldn’t go to Silver and so we didn’t go.”[6]

African American teenagers and adults created their own entertainment in black-owned businesses like the juke joints in places like Lyttonsville or the District’s U Street corridor. Camp meetings in upper Montgomery County provided annual seasonal recreation opportunities. But closer to home, white Silver Spring offered few opportunities. When the City of Takoma Park opened its first municipal recreation building for African Americans in 1959, Heffner Park in the city’s historically black neighborhood around Ritchie and Geneva avenues became a regional hub for African American recreation, especially teenagers.

“We would go to, the teenagers would go to Takoma Park,” explained Ella R. in 2016. “So they would have teen club. And they would play music and the teens from the community in Takoma Park would be there and we would go.”

03-SS Armory-HABS
Silver Spring Armory building. Historic American Buildings Survey photo by William Lebovich. Montgomery County Planning Department files.

Patricia Tyson, another lifelong Lyttonsville resident, also recalled going to teen club at Heffner Park. “In Takoma Park there was a Teen Club on Friday nights for us in the late 50’s until about 1960 or ‘61,” Tyson wrote in an email follow-up to an interview we did in 2016. “It was called the Heffner Park Teen Club.  My sister and I went there every Friday night. Had a great time.”[7]

Lyttonsville teens would take a bus to Takoma Park and walk back home by way of Silver Spring where they would stop at the recently desegregated Drug Fair for a snack before walking the rest of the way home along the railroad tracks.

The Heffner Park recreation building is a rectangular concrete block building on Oswego Avenue. It’s located just up the street from Takoma Park’s public works building, which was constructed at the same time in the heart of the city’s African American neighborhood and over the objections of residents.[8] The Heffner Park recreation building isn’t Silver Spring’s grand armory, where white sock hops and civic celebrations were held, nor is it the art deco Silver Theatre, but it is a stark reminder of Jim Crow in and around Silver Spring in the civil rights era. An appreciated amenity for Silver Spring’s black residents, the Heffner Park building nonetheless underscored the physical separation of recreational opportunities for African Americans and whites.

04-Heffner Park-2017
Heffner Park recreation building, Takoma Park, Maryland. Photo by David Rotenstein.

The Film and its Maker

Walter Gottlieb grew up in Washington’s Shepherd Park neighborhood in the 1960s and his parents moved to Silver Spring when he was in the seventh grade. “I have been there most of my life, except for college and a brief stint out of state,” Gottlieb told WAMU interviewer Kojo Nnamdi in 2002.[9] Gottlieb continues to live and work in Silver Spring where he founded his own independent production company.

In one of several interviews done on the eve of the documentary’s first airing, Gottlieb told a local newspaper that he didn’t know about segregation in Silver Spring until 2002, while he was working on the film. “What was interesting to me was that we were looking for African-American seniors who could tell stories about the old downtown Silver Spring, and we were having trouble locating people,” Gottlieb told The Gazette newspaper when the film was released. “And that’s when we learned that Silver Spring, that the downtown Silver Spring, was segregated up until the 1950s.”[10]

By his own admission, Gottlieb was able to spend most of his life in Silver Spring shielded from the community’s past that included widespread discrimination in the community’s businesses, public buildings, and housing. Even after completing the film, Gottlieb appears to have learned little about the substantial role racism played in shaping his community.

“Silver Spring was not under Jim Crow laws like in the South, as far as I know,” Gottlieb told WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi in 2002. “But, there was a de facto segregation that was pretty prevalent in the business district.”[11] Gottlieb described interviews he had done with African American residents who could recall discrimination in Silver Spring’s stores and restaurants. As for Silver Spring’s two movie theaters, the Silver (opened in 1938) and the Seco (opened in 1927; renamed the Roth), Gottlieb said, “If they were allowed into the movie theatre they had to sit in the back.”

As Gottlieb was making his movie, Bruce Johansen, a University of Maryland doctoral student in American Studies, was doing ethnographic fieldwork in Silver Spring. The focus of his research was on the intersection of race and history in Silver Spring. Johansen drilled down into the work by two organizations in the community: The Silver Spring Historical Society and IMPACT Silver Spring.[12]

01-Silver Spring DVD
Silver Spring: Story of an American Suburb DVD cover. Collection of David Rotenstein.

Johansen first met Gottlieb in 2000 while the filmmaker was shooting in the Tastee Diner just before the historic eatery was to be relocated elsewhere in Silver Spring’s central business district.[13] When Silver Spring: Story of an American Suburb was first broadcast on WETA, Johansen collaborated with IMPACT to show the film and discuss it with community members. Johansen devoted an entire chapter in his 2006 dissertation to the film and the community’s responses to it.

“The heritage that the Silver Spring Historical Society and Gottlieb’s film celebrate and aim to preserve is frequently at odds with the community’s history remembered by older African American residents,” Johansen wrote. “They recall a Silver Spring that was highly segregated until the 1970s.”

Instead of weaving the African American experience into the film’s flow, African Americans were set apart in a way that reproduced the Jim Crow era: separate and unequal treatment.

Johansen then described how he and IMPACT queried viewers about the film. Many respondents lamented how segregation was treated so superficially and how the African American experience was flattened into two segments totaling about four minutes of the 80-minute movie. Instead of weaving the African American experience into the film’s flow, African Americans were set apart in a way that reproduced the Jim Crow era: separate and unequal treatment.

One passage in Johansen’s dissertation stands out about how race and racism were portrayed in the film:

An African American woman in our group that night noted that many who watched the film would fail to come away with an understanding that because segregation is so recent a part of Silver Spring’s history, that “a lot of anger” lingers. The “heritage of racism,” she added, “needed to be in this film.” But instead, as Manny [Hidalgo] observed, the false impression is given that after the schools integrated there were no longer any problems.[14]

Johansen went beyond the film to analyze how the film’s promotional materials treated segregation in Silver Spring. “Interestingly, although contemporary Silver Spring is described in Gottlieb’s documentary proposal as ‘an exciting, multi-cultural community,’ at no point in promotional materials or on web site pages is any mention made of past racial segregation,” Johansen wrote.[15]

Gottlieb’s treatment of African Americans in his film reproduces his understanding of the African American experience in Silver Spring as a resident of the community. Johansen confronted Gottlieb’s ignorance of segregation in Silver Spring: “It became apparent that he came to the project with no awareness of the community’s racial history and remained unclear of its details. He stated that there was segregation in Silver Spring until the 1950s.”[16]

Johansen’s informants described a Silver Spring that is at odds with the Silver Spring portrayed in Gottlieb’s film. The historical record — newspaper and magazine articles, government records, and many more informants than those interviewed by Johansen and Gottlieb — underscore how much Gottlieb got wrong in the film and in the interviews he gave about it.

Silver Spring 2017

Local social media sites began advertising the September 2017 screening of Gottlieb’s film a few weeks before the event. The event was described by the AFI as, “a FREE 15th Anniversary Screening of Silver Spring: Story of An American Suburb, with Q & A with local filmmakers, director Walter Gottlieb and co-producer Jerry A. McCoy!”[17]

After seeing the announcements, I contacted other social justice activists I am working with on erasing invisibility in Silver Spring.[18] Our efforts resulted in several contacts to AFI management about the proposed screening. These communications with AFI included a request to postpone the screening and to create a program where people of color and other Silver Spring residents could participate in a more inclusive session. We asked for an opportunity to discuss what was shown in the film and why as well as what was missing from the film.

Panel discusses “Silver Spring: Story of an American Suburb.” Lett to right, Jerry McCoy (Silver Spring Historical Society), Walter Gottlieb (filmmaker), and Todd Hitchcock (AFI Silver Program Director). Photo by David Rotenstein.

Despite Gottlieb’s assertion that nothing important was left out of his film, there appears to be much missing. These include accounts of civil rights actions in downtown in the 1960s to interviews with key leaders of the efforts to desegregate Silver Spring.

Efforts to get AFI to change its program fell on deaf ears. AFI management responded to my emails and phone messages on September 19, 2017. AFI’s Director Ray Barry and director of programming Todd Hitchcock declined to postpone the event or to restructure it to make it more inclusive and accessible to a wider audience. AFI defended the film and the filmmaker by informing me that ever since WETA first aired the movie in 2002, it has never received a complaint. They added that the Q&A session described in the event’s announcements would provide everyone there with an opportunity to speak.

AFI’s response means that they’re giving their stamp of approval to a nostalgic and sorely incomplete history.

Bruce Johansen’s important work is conveniently absent from contemporary discussions about how history and historic preservation are produced in Silver Spring. I sent a draft of this article to him via email. “It’s discouraging to hear that AFI has chosen to celebrate Gottlieb’s documentary,” Johansen wrote. “Even more troubling is that they’ve rebuffed your suggestions, thereby missing a golden opportunity to provide a platform for a crucial conversation designed to address glaring historical erasures in Gottlieb’s piece and more widely in other narratives that continue to circulate.”

He added, “AFI’s response means that they’re giving their stamp of approval to a nostalgic and sorely incomplete history.”[19]

Is AFI’s answer sufficient? In a time when our nation is being challenged to re-evaluate its progress on civil rights and social justice, I believe that it isn’t enough. AFI’s resistance to changing its program and its unqualified defense of the film does little to reconcile the film’s omissions and errors with the harmful past it marginalizes and the contested present in which we live.

DSR-2017David S. Rotenstein is a Silver Spring, Maryland, historian. He writes on gentrification, race, and history and is the proprietor of a small public history consulting practice focusing on urban and suburban history.

* * *

Book Cover Amazon Button.png

Our collected volume of essays, Demand the Impossible: Essays in History As Activism, is now available on Amazon! Based on research first featured on The Activist History Review, the twelve essays in this volume examine the role of history in shaping ongoing debates over monuments, racism, clean energy, health care, poverty, and the Democratic Party. Together they show the ways that the issues of today are historical expressions of power that continue to shape the present. Also, be sure to review our book on Goodreads and join our Goodreads group to receive notifications about upcoming promotions and book discussions for Demand the Impossible!

* * *

We here at The Activist History Review are always working to expand and develop our mission, vision, and goals for the future. These efforts sometimes necessitate a budget slightly larger than our own pockets. If you have enjoyed reading the content we host here on the site, please consider donating to our cause.


[1] Greg Simmons, “Silver Spring Documentary to Air on WETA next Week,” The Gazette, December 4, 2002, http://ww2.gazette.net/gazette_archive/2002/200249/burtonsville/news/133350-1.html.

[2] Richard C Jaffeson, Silver Spring Success: An Interactive History of Silver Spring, Maryland (Silver Spring, Md.: The Author, 2000); Jerry A McCoy and Silver Spring Historical Society (Silver Spring, Md.), Historic Silver Spring, Images of America (Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2005); Potomac-Hudson Engineering, Inc., “Historic Sites Survey Report,” Report prepared for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (Silver Spring, Maryland: Potomac-Hudson Engineering, Inc., December 2002).

[3] Charles Spurgeon Johnson, Patterns of Negro Segregation (New York, London: Harper & Brothers, 1943); Todd M. Michney, Surrogate Suburbs: Black Upward Mobility and Neighborhood Change in Cleveland, 1900-1980 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

[4] Gus Bauman, “The Silver Spring War and Rebirth: The Fall and Rise of An American Downtown” (Presentation, Makeover Montgomery Conference, Silver Spring, Md., April 2011); Johansen, “Imagined Pasts, Imagined Futures: Race, Politics, Memory, and the Revitalization of Downtown Silver Spring, Maryland,” 63–66.

[5] Charlotte Coffield, Interview with David Rotenstein, July 29, 2016.

[6] Ella R., Interview with David Rotenstein, October 4, 2016.

[7] Patricia Tyson to David Rotenstein, “Re: Silver Spring Armory,” October 13, 2016.

[8] “Takoma Plans Fight On Conditions Leading to Floods,” Washington Evening Star, July 13, 1954; “Takoma Lets Contracts for Buildings,” The Washington Post and Times Herald  (1954-1959); Washington, D.C., September 24, 1958, sec. CITY LIFE.

[9] “Find out the History of Silver Spring” (Washington, D.C.: WAMU (NPR), December 4, 2002), http://thekojonnamdishow.org/shows/2002-12-04/silver-spring.

[10] Simmons, “Silver Spring Documentary to Air on WETA next Week.”

[11] “Find out the History of Silver Spring.”

[12] Bruce Richard Johansen, “Imagined Pasts, Imagined Futures: Race, Politics, Memory, and the Revitalization of Downtown Silver Spring, Maryland” (Dissertation, University of Maryland, 2005), http://drum.lib.umd.edu/handle/1903/3210.

[13] Ibid., 303–4.

[14] Ibid., 438–39.

[15] Ibid., 433.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Free Screening: Silver Spring: Story of An American Suburb + Q&A,” microblog, Facebook, accessed September 20, 2017, https://www.facebook.com/events/809497659212411/?acontext=%7B%22ref%22%3A%224%22%2C%22action_history%22%3A%22null%22%7D. Capitalization and exclamation point in the orginal.

[18] David S. Rotenstein, “Protesting Invisibility in Silver Spring, Maryland,” The Activist History Review, June 23, 2017, https://activisthistory.com/2017/06/23/protesting-invisibility-in-silver-spring-maryland/.

[19] Bruce Richard Johansen to David S. Rotenstein, “Re: Silver Spring Documentary at AFI,” September 21, 2017.

3 comments on “A 2002 Documentary that Whitewashes History Gets a New Coat in 2017

  1. Pingback: Mapping White Supremacy – The Activist History Review

  2. I appreciate this article here I found researching this area for a book I am writing and will publish early 2018. I grew up in Wheaton and my story is part memoir, part fiction and deals with learning about the backstory of the civil rights movement as a 12 year old in 1970.
    I agree with your stance. No more sanitizing history! Please feel free to contact me at perrizina@aol.com.


  3. Pingback: Memories of Silver Spring’s Doughnut Shop | History Sidebar Mirror

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: