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