“A Shameful Past”

For decades, it has been my mission as a journalist to give readers a sense of place about where they live, work and travel.  It’s my strong sense that many who settle in metropolitan Washington, D.C., especially those arriving from the urban centers above the Mason Dixon Line, are under the misimpression that they are still in “the North.” But that is false.

While at The Washington Post, I gave tours to new reporters and editors, primarily of Prince George’s County but also Montgomery and occasionally the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland. In Aquasco, in southern Prince George’s, I would take them to an Episcopal church cemetery and point out the Confederate grave markers.  Abraham Lincoln got two votes in this county in 1860, I would say, and they’re still looking for them, an uneasy laugh line.

For Bethesda Magazine,  I’ve written a series of articles about Montgomery County’s troubled racial past.  First came “Uncle Tom’s County,” tracing the history of slavery here. Then, I told the story of the last of the county’s three lynchings, on July 4, 1896, of Sidney Randolph, a mile from the Rockville courthouse. I also wrote of the antebellum last will of Nathan Talbott, in which the slaveowner left most of his estate to an enslaved woman and her children, who it so happened were also his children.  These stories stirred little reaction from readers.  For whatever reason, they hadn’t hit home. Perhaps they were too remote, too far in the past.

But the story of race in this outwardly progressive county is always timely, so I was happy to accept an assignment from Steve Hull, the editor and publisher, to tell the full, shameful story, from slavery all the way up to Jim Crow laws and, customs and covenants, to the difficult desegregation of schools, restaurants and other public accommodations well into the later decades of the 20th century. The story “A Shameful Past” is in the magazine’s new March issue and can be found on p. 242. To read it online in Digi-mag form, click here.

In his note “to our readers,” on p. 18, Steve writes: “These days, Montgomery County is one of the most progressive and diverse counties in the country. But through much of is history, the county was overtly racist in its attitudes, policies and laws… Given the focus on racism and equity in our community and the nation, I thought the time was right to run a story on the county’s  shameful past. And I knew just the writer I wanted to do it. Gene Meyer had been covering Montgomery County for decades, first for The Washington Post and, over the last 15 years, as a regular contributor to Bethesda Magazine.  He eagerly accepted the assignment.”

Steve asked me to add my thoughts for his publisher’s message. Here is some of what I wrote:

“Certainly, Montgomery County and the state of Maryland have changed a lot since the decades of codified segregation in schools, public accommodations, restaurants and real estate. But we are still dealing with the legacy, in housing, in schools, in critical services. There exists in this county a great divide, generally between east and west, that has been manifest most recently in controversies over changing school boundaries to assure more equity. The debate has fallen largely along geographical, racial and economic lines. So, the fault lines from the recent and distant past are still very much with us. The great challenge is to overcome them.”

Confederate tablet in Monocacy Cemetery, Beallsville, Montgomery County, Maryland



  1. Gretchen Gaines on March 1, 2021 at 10:31 am

    Gene, I am pleased to see you are doing this. So true! Take care Gretchen

  2. Barbara Gerner de Garcia on March 1, 2021 at 11:57 am

    Moving to Montgomery County in 1992 after 18 years working in the Boston Public Schools, and as a parent in that school system, I was shocked by the lack of transparency here in terms of school boundaries, and the very visible segregation that existed within schools and between schools. Of course in 1992, Boston was still under Federal Court scrutiny as part of the desegregation order of the early 1970’s. In Boston, there were neighborhood desegregation centers for parents where we had access to maps and data for all schools and neighborhoods (these were pre-internet days). When I attempted to find this information as a parent in Montgomery County, I encountered barriers and obscured data. I recognized right away that this obfuscation was part of the reality of living in a former slave state.
    As I have learned over time, while slavery ended over 150 years ago, the legacy of slavery is still with us.

  3. Shelley Martinez on March 1, 2021 at 4:11 pm

    Very interesting history. I was born in DC to parents who were also born in DC. I am 3rd generation. Due to my dad’s army career & his post army work with IBM, we didn’t return to the DMV until I was 6 in 1968. We lived in downtown Silver Spring along Sligo Creek. It was a multi-ethnic community where I felt safe. We moved a few miles away into PG County in 1970 and the experience there was less welcoming. Bussing happened in 1972 and that was a difficult time, at least initially. High school had us back in Montgomery County in the eastern half of the County. We moved into one of the most progressive and racially tranquil neighborhoods imaginable in the 1970’s. Through the express efforts of the parents, racial animus was not tolerated and we all grew up not realizing how unique our neighborhood (Tamarack) was. Even today, we marvel at how integrated our neighborhood was and how free we were from problems. There were definitely issues outside the neighborhood, but I never recall hearing of any issues withing the neighborhood.

    My dad’s best friend grew up in what was then called Quince Orchard. It was a small enclave of Black families that were largely family. His grandparents owned over 10,000 acres and gave each of his 9 children 1000 acres. They gave the County the land on which Quince Orchard high school (my local hs now) stands as well as land for the church that’s just down from Jones Lane on Darnestown Rd. Lots of rich history.

  4. Ellen Zimmerman on March 7, 2021 at 10:03 am

    As always Gene, so informative and such important work. Thank you for doing it!

  5. Cindy loose on March 26, 2021 at 3:54 pm

    In defending journalists to those who say we make things up, I point to Janet Cooke as an example of how seriously journalists take making things up—we remember this case and the few like it decades later.

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