North Brentwood’s uneasy shift from black haven to Hispanic destination

The tiny town of North Brentwood was built by former slaves and their descendants who dreamed that by owning land and homes they could control their own future in a county that was overwhelmingly white.

They erected small bungalows and larger homes known as foursquares that were passed down through generations.

Now the first town incorporated by African Americans in Prince George’s County is at a crossroads. Longtime residents are dying or moving into nursing facilities. Their children are selling the homes, and almost all of the buyers are Hispanic — part of a wave that has doubled the number of Latinos living in Prince George’s to 129,000 over the past 10 years.

The newcomers are altering North Brentwood’s identity, even as a nonprofit group raises funds to make the town the site of an ambitious $25 million Prince George’s African American Museum and Cultural Center.

Barsabe Castellon Flores, who works in a hotel kitchen in Georgetown, bought her two-story house on 40th Street in North Brentwood seven years ago. It was affordable and the neighborhood was safe.

“It’s very tranquil,” she said, and, pointed to her neighbor’s houses. Salvadorans live next door. Across the street are Dominicans. Only one African American family lives on her end of the block.

Five miles from the District border, North Brentwood is a town of barely 500 residents that won a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003. It was founded by Civil War veterans from the Maryland Colored Regiments, and incorporated in 1924. On the stairway leading to the second-floor town hall offices, the wall is covered with photos of North Brentwood’s black mayors. Nearby is the town flag of red, black and green, colors that symbolize African American pride.

For decades, the town was a haven for African Americans in Prince George’s, who often faced hostility in the all-white communities beyond its borders.

“If you got off the trolley car in Mount Rainier to save 8 cents, you were going to have difficulty in the walk home,” remembered Arthur Dock, 80, who was born and raised in North Brentwood.

Department store lunch counters in Hyattsville were off limits. Blacks couldn’t swim in the public pool. There were separate bathrooms at the county services building.

As recently as 1990, North Brentwood was virtually all African American. There were only two Hispanic families, 10 people in all. By 2000, the town had become 82 percent black and 8 percent Hispanic. By last year, the Hispanic population had more than quadrupled to 34 percent, and black residents had fallen to 64 percent.

At this rate, blacks could be a minority before the next census,or even before the African American museum can raise enough money to open its doors. The museum has received about $6 million from the county for land acquisition and planning, but it is just launching its capital campaign.

“If we’re still here, we may just barely be a majority, or we may be less than a majority,” said North Brentwood Council member Eleanor F. Traynham, who spent her childhood in the town and moved back as an adult to live in the house where her father grew up. “That’s just the way it’s going. The African Americans are dying out.”

Culture clash

Longtime residents can see the changes without even leaving their front yards.

Hispanics “just bought a house on Allison Street,” said Janie Cuffie, president of the North Brentwood Citizens Association, as she stood in her driveway leading to her brown, one-story frame house on 41st Avenue.

“Some live over there, and at the next corner they live there,” Cuffie said, pointing out various homes where Hispanics now live. “They’re all over town.”

As the community has evolved, misunderstandings have arisen between neighbors.

Street parking has been a sore point, Traynham said. Some of the Hispanic residents have several cars that they park along the streets, irking longtime residents when parking isn’t available directly in front of their houses.

“They don’t fuss with the people who are doing it, but they grumble about it to the other neighbors,” Traynham said. “Me being a council person, I hear the grumbling. We have explained you don’t own the parking spaces in front of your house.”

Some residents are unhappy at remodeling that has been done to homes purchased by Hispanics, according to Traynham. Additions and porches have been built and garages converted to living space, sometimes without permits, she said.

Civic leaders have tried to engage their new neighbors. Town newsletters have been distributed in Spanish, but the translator got a new job and had to quit. The town scheduled a meeting to discuss how things are commonly done in North Brentwood, such as hanging laundry to dry on a line in the back yard instead of over a porch railing in the front. But attendance was sparse.

Although some black residents of North Brentwood are fine with the changes, others lament that something special about their town is being lost.

Retha Henry, 88, who has lived in North Brentwood most of her life, said she misses the tightly knit community where friends felt like family.

“We were in and out of each other’s houses,” said Rose Marie Holland, 83, agreeing with her friend, as they stood outside the North Brentwood African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church waiting to attend Bible study.

‘Como está?’

Holland said she has little interaction with her new Hispanic neighbors.

“Now, we might speak or we might not,” she said. “Or we say, ‘Hi,’ but we don’t stand and talk.”

Kingsley Brown, 26, a truck driver who lives with his sister in their mother’s childhood home, is friendly with the Hispanic couple who live next door. He said he often greets them from the front lawn:

“Como está?” he said he asks, explaining that he speaks Spanish only “un poquito. I used to work in Langley Park,” a community on the border of Prince George’s and Montgomery counties that has the densest concentration of Hispanics in the Washington region. More than 85 percent of Langley Park’s residents are Hispanic — what many demographers would consider a high degree of segregation.

In North Brentwood, Ruth Dawing Santos, a school bus driver from Peru, and her husband, a mechanic, bought the house next door to Brown’s three years ago, “because it was cheap,” she said. Several Hispanic residents said affordable housing brought them to North Brentwood, where small fixer-uppers can be had for under $100,000 and a five-bedroom house is on the market for just under $300,000.

Santos said their immediate neighbors are friendly, but she suspects another neighbor reported them to police when their van’s license expired. The couple spends most of their free time socializing at their church, and have little time left to get to know their neighbors, she said.

Traynham said some of the Hispanic newcomers bring their children to the town’s annual Halloween party, and to its back-to-school night where the town hands out school supplies. She hopes to find more occasions to bring neighbors together.

“I have nothing negative to say about people moving in to our community,” Traynham said, adding that she would like the newcomers to take pride in the town’s rich history. “My hope is always they would become a part of us. Join in where you live, and be an active part of the community . If we can get that word out, where people take you serious about being part of the community not just being in the community, it will be a better community.”

Ovetta Wiggins writes about K-12 education.
Carol Morello is the diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, covering the State Department.
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