Emory Grove Park on the edge of Gaithersburg was crowded with picnickers on Saturday, But "as far as the crowd is concerned, it's just a drop in the bucket compared to what we used to have at camp meetings," said Maude Taylor, Emory Grove's historian. "The people were so thick . . ."
The occasion was Emory Grove Community Day, an event devised by the Montgomery County Department of Recreation to honor one of the oldest black communities in the county, a community that exists today in radically changed shape.
Largely rebuilt in the early 1970s, when it was something of a rural slum but also a tightly knit community, the old Emory Grove has been replaced for the most part with subsidized suburban developments such as Emory Grove Village, Amity Gardens and Washington Square.
"It seems like a lot of empty spaces have been filled and a lot of people have been scattered," said Kevin Sellman. Sellman, 25, lives in Columbia, Md., but his paretns live in the Emory Grove area still.
"There weren't a lot of people, but they were close-knit," said B. Eugene Neal, a recreation specialist who helped organize the event. Neal grew up on the other side of Gaithersburg but attended school in Emorg Grove.
Now, said Neal, blacks from other areas of the county where homes were condemned for urban renewal and families from Washington have moved into the area. "They're back-to-back in townhouses. The houses probably are better, but I don't know if the situation is better," he said.
"There are probably people in Washington Square who don't even know each other. They're just like strangers. Everybody used to know each other," he said.
While some of the community's newer residents picnicked on the grass or danced, played basketball or ran relays, Taylor recounted some of the community's history. Based on recent discussions with a Sandy Spring historian, she said she believes the community may have been founded by Quakers and may have been part of the underground railroad that moved escaped slaves to Canada and freedom.
The former church campgrounds, now the park, were started in 1865, she said. The first church and school were started in 1876. "You always get that breeze here," said Taylor, standing in the middle of a grove of trees that was formerly the campgrounds.
"The county wanted to put houses in here," said James Harvey, president of the Emory Grove Civic Association, which argued in favor of preserving the old stand of oak trees.
Taylor, who also pointed out stone pillars built by German war prisoners, became interested in maintaining the history of Emory Grove through her husband, a former school superintendent, she said. Her husband's father had kept accounts of the community for years, but those records were destroyed by a fire, she said. Her husband reconstructed what he could by interviewing older area residents.
"He'd go and get these dear old people and walk around," she said.
Taylor and Harvey showed off some relics from the former Methodist campgrounds, including a leather bag used to collect money and tiny ice cream spoons. Harvey is originally from Washington, but "I used to come out here and play ball, and I fell in love with a girl out here," he said.
Harvey said some former residents who moved away from the area hope to move back as additional housing is built.
Sellman, 25, and Taylor, 74, both remembered attending the campground meetings. "It was the only recreation we had," said Taylor. "I surely did. Everybody came."