by David S. Rotenstein
The centerpiece in the Montgomery History exhibit, BOOM: The 1950s in Montgomery County is a recreated restaurant booth complete with faux burgers, fries, and root beer floats. Formerly the Montgomery County Historical Society, the organization’s new exhibit debuted in October 2017 and occupies three rooms in the antebellum Rockville home that serves as Montgomery History’s headquarters. There’s also an online component titled “The Suburbanization of Montgomery County, 1950-1960” that is hosted on Montgomery History’s website and produced by the society’s Mary Kay Harper Center for Suburban Studies.
In the 1950s, Montgomery County, Maryland was a mostly agricultural Washington, D.C. suburb. For most of the twentieth century, Jim Crow had a firm grip on Montgomery County’s housing, public accommodations, and schools. For more than a century, the county seat had its own Confederate monument, which was only recently given to a Potomac River ferry company that celebrates the region’s ties to the Confederacy.
Much work is required to make our histories more inclusive and equitable.
Montgomery County has more than a million residents and it is among the wealthiest and best-educated counties in the United States. Yet despite these assets, historical organizations throughout the county continue to produce history and historic preservation in ways that omit or sanitize the pervasive role segregation and white supremacy played in Montgomery County’s development. These productions, like Montgomery History’s BOOM exhibit, are visible reminders that much work is required to make our histories more inclusive and equitable. Beyond the exhibit, the books and historical markers produced and designed by the Silver Spring Historical Society and the historic resources surveys that erase the African American presence along with Jim Crow effectively create an environment where history and historic preservation are produced unevenly. The end result is a sort of extension of the old separate and unequal doctrine where white history is celebrated and African American history is tokenized and otherized—if it’s dealt with at all.
As exhibit curator Elizabeth Lay told me when I visited the exhibit in May 2018, Montgomery County has some unique stories about life in Cold War America because of its proximity to the nation’s capital. Suburbanization and Cold War planning are important parts of local, regional, and national history. Lay sought to capture those themes in the exhibit along with some of the lighter aspects of life in mid-century America.
The exhibit is divided into three parts: a timeline spanning the decade occupies a hallway inside the historic house while one room features artifacts and text panels about domestic life and entertainment. The main gallery is dedicated to telling the Cold War story along with a case and text panel about “Music of the Fifties,” which features a recreated restaurant booth. Women’s dresses from the period are mounted throughout the galleries.
The restaurant exhibit attempts to tell the story of the Hot Shoppe chain, which was founded in 1927 in nearby Washington. By the 1950s, the chain had locations throughout the District and suburban Maryland and Virginia. An illustrated timeline mounted on a wall next to booth tells the chain’s story.
The booth has been featured in publicity for the exhibit and is where Montgomery History’s executive director Matt Logan was interviewed by a local media outlet. Seated at the booth with an African American reporter, Logan proudly explained the exhibit: “It was an absolute icon and it was something that everyone, who lived here at that time, that everyone went there. It was just a given.”
Well, not exactly. When the NAACP and other civil rights organizations began surveying Montgomery County businesses in the 1950s to identify which ones discriminated and which ones didn’t, two Montgomery County Hot Shoppe locations were found to discriminate. When asked by a Washington Post reporter in 1957, a company spokesperson said, “Naturally we don’t want to embarrass our guests. Our policies are dictated by customs in the area.”[i]
African Americans who were humiliated and excluded by Hot Shoppes and by the many other white-owned establishments in Montgomery County during the 1950s still recall how Jim Crow shaped their daily lives. One woman who grew up in Bethesda—Maryland’s River Road community (and an African American hamlet near the D.C. line)—recalled women walking to work at Bethesda’s Hot Shoppe. I asked if they could eat there if they were employed in the restaurant. “No. I think if they did, they had to eat in the back or they had to bring it to take it out or something,” she replied.
Pastor Ella Redfield, a lifelong Montgomery County resident who grew up in Lyttonsville—another African American hamlet near Silver Spring—explained Jim Crow during her childhood in the 1950s. “Down in the South, they were just straight-up forward, they would just say, whites and coloreds here,” she said in May 2018. “They didn’t make no bones about it. But in the north, and we consider this, even though it’s South, we consider this part of the north. They would have, they would make it so that it was sort of unspoken.”
In the four years I have been conducting fieldwork among African Americans who lived in Montgomery County during the 1950s, the discrimination they faced in stores, restaurants, and movie theaters remains palpable. Yet, the residents in places like Lyttonsville, Wheaton Lane, Tobytown, Scotland, and River Road created their own suburbs within the suburbs with churches, baseball teams, benevolent organizations, and kinship networks , all of which provided the glue that held together hamlets within a larger network of communities comprising Montgomery County’s ‘Black Map.”[ii]
The BOOM exhibit successfully erases the Black experience in Montgomery County during the 1950s. It accomplishes the erasure by not discussing discrimination in the Hot Shoppe timeline and by marginalizing African Americans by discussing their lives in the decade in a few timeline paragraphs and with Green Book reproductions, which curator Lay pointed out don’t include any entries for Montgomery County. Black life in Montgomery County, if you are to believe the BOOM exhibit, simply existed in response to white actions. Basically, in this exhibit and in much of what Montgomery History has produced about African American life in the county, Blacks are actors in a white man’s production, incapable of agency, creativity, and entrepreneurship.
And then there was baseball. Many of Montgomery County’s African American hamlets had their own teams.
One poignant example that the exhibit might have used to tell the story of 1950s Black life in Montgomery County might have been the Montgomery County Singing Convention. The network of church choirs was established in 1953 by five historic congregations in lower Montgomery County: Macedonia Baptist Church (River Road/Bethesda), Pilgrim Baptist Church (Lyttonsville), Allen Chapel AME (Wheaton), Lee’s Memorial AME (Ken-Gar), and First Baptist (Kensington). More than half a century later, the singing convention still meets every fifth Sunday in one of the member churches.
Harvey Matthews, a Macedonia Baptist Church member and a leader in the effort to preserve the Moses Cemetery in Bethesda, first told me about the singing convention last year in his church’s basement. “One of the ministers would preach and each one of the churches would sing two selections, close out the service and go home,” Matthews explained. “And the next month, it would come to Macedonia. And when you come to your church, you bring a banner in here and hang it up with those five churches on it. Called the Singing Convention.”
And then there was baseball. Many of Montgomery County’s African American hamlets had their own teams. The weekend games were eagerly anticipated and well-attended in many places like Lyttonsville, Wheaton Lane, and River Road. The games drew people to the ballfields and into nearby beer gardens, all of which were owned and operated by African American entrepreneurs.
Matthews, who grew up in River Road in the 1950s before moving to Washington, has vivid memories of the broad social opportunities baseball provided. “I used to run behind my older brother all the time. He’d always take me to all those spots, especially where the little beer taverns was,” he said.
Standing in front of the Hot Shoppe booth, I asked Lay where visitors can see the Black experience in Montgomery County during the 1950s. “We don’t have a lot of that in our collection,” she replied. After struggling for more words to answer my question, her response was punctuated by a 32-second silence in the recording. “We’re telling a lot of stories in a very small way.”
Lay tried to explain that visitors can learn about African American life when one of the society’s trained docents leads a tour through the exhibit or if she takes people through. “We speak more about them when we’re giving tours than are apparent in the objects. The objects don’t tell that story as widely as when I’m giving the tours,” Lay said.
Why can’t Montgomery History integrate the stories about Jim Crow discrimination as well as stories that speak to the dozens of resilient and thriving African American communities located throughout Montgomery County during the 1950s?
That may be, but I don’t understand why Montgomery History couldn’t integrate the stories about Jim Crow discrimination as well as stories that speak to the dozens of resilient and thriving African American communities located throughout Montgomery County during the 1950s. Even Lay’s assertion that the society’s storytelling capacities are limited by its collections doesn’t withstand close scrutiny. In its Winter 2017 newsletter, Montgomery History’s archivist included a scan of a 1958 NAACP survey of Montgomery County businesses that discriminated.
The survey identified Hot Shoppes as an establishment that began integrating between 1957 and 1958. Montgomery History has been the county’s contract vendor for archival services for more than a decade and the survey is part of the collections that the organization manages. A reproduction of the 1958 survey would have gone a long way towards making BOOM less whitewashed and more accurate.
Though Montgomery History’s physical exhibit is constrained by the artifacts in the society’s collections and by the historic house museum’s architectural envelope, the online complement to BOOM also has substantial issues despite not being limited by access to artifacts or space. In the two articles published to date, one on suburban development and another on shopping, African Americans are omitted or reduced to the same marginalized and tokenized stereotypes found in the physical exhibit instead of including examples like the baseball culture or the singing convention.
Montgomery History’s staff could have given more thoughtful consideration to what life was like for African Americans during the 1950s. Their work would have been substantially better had had they availed themselves of the latest research in Black suburbanization.[iii] Even a small round of oral history fieldwork with residents in Montgomery County’s African American communities would have yielded a tremendous amount of material on Black entrepreneurialism, entertainment, housing, and consumer behavior. Montgomery History chose not to, and as a result, the exhibit is a return to the shopworn exhibits from the past century that celebrate one segment of a community’s population while doing great violence to others.
If I were grading the exhibit as the final product in a public history museums course I would be torn between a failing grade or an incomplete. In my opinion, it’s both: it fails to do justice to the county’s history because it is incomplete.
BOOM: The 1950s in Montgomery County runs through July 15, 2018 at the Beall-Dawson House, Montgomery County Historical Society, 111 W. Montgomery Avenue, Rockville, Maryland 20850. The museum is open Thursday through Sunday, noon to 4:00 p.m. Admission is free for Montgomery Historical Society members and children under 6. Adult admission is $7; seniors and active military $5. Directions and additional details are available at the Montgomery History website: http://montgomeryhistory.org/.
David 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.
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[i] Jean Jones, “Negro Eating Ban Is Checked,” The Washington Post, August 26, 1957.
[ii] Marcus Anthony Hunter and Zandria Robinson, Chocolate Cities: The Black Map of American Life, 1 edition (University of California Press, 2018).
[iii] Andrew Wiese, Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century, Historical Studies of Urban America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004); Walter Greason, Suburban Erasure: How the Suburbs Ended the Civil Rights Movement in New Jersey (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2013); M. Ruth Little, “The Other Side of the Tracks: The Middle-Class Neighborhoods That Jim Crow Built in Early-Twentieth-Century North Carolina,” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture 7 (1997): 268–80, https://doi.org/10.2307/3514397; Margaret Ruth Little, “Getting the American Dream for Themselves: Postwar Modern Subdivisions for African Americans in Raleigh, North Carolina,” Buildings & Landscapes: Journal of the Vernacular Architecture Forum 19, no. 1 (2012): 73–87.