It has been almost two decades since a tiny, unmapped black enclave called Toby Town became a national cause ce'le bre during the height of the civil rights movement.

There, in the heart of Potomac, one of the wealthiest communities in the nation, the country discovered an unbelievable pocket of poverty.

Toby Town resident Robert A. Martin, then 76 and now dead, called attention to the area in 1965 by filing a suit that accused a wealthy Potomac neighbor of fraudulently taking his land.

At the time, Martin and his 70 black neighbors were living in overcrowded shacks--some covered only with tar paper and housing as many as 18 people in three rooms. The entire community shared one outdoor toilet and one well. Wood-burning stoves were the only source of heat. The one dirt road, gutted and strewn with debris, was impassable in winter and hazardous to walk on even on a clear summer day.

Wrote one journalist in 1965, "Why does he stay? Why don't all Toby Towners leave? . . . My first reaction was a desire to level the whole damned place and fill it with new bungalows."

Federal and local dollars and manpower poured into the area. VISTA volunteers arrived, businesses donated time and workers, liberal Montgomery County residents pressed for better living conditions and built a $20,000 community center. Journalists and sociologists studied the area. Columnist Drew Pearson helped Martin meet county zoning regulations. IBM lent Joe Drayton, today a purchase administrator with the company, to the community for two years where he became the full-time counselor, friend and "furnace fixer."

To visit Toby Town today is to look at what the future, as envisioned in 1965, has become. The last of the shanties was razed 10 years ago and replaced with 26 federally subsidized clapboard homes, painted yellow, green or brown. There are washers and dryers in all the homes (some have air conditioners), tennis and basketball courts, and the large community center.

Last Friday, the community celebrated a much-awaited milestone when one resident became the first Toby Towner to purchase one of the houses the government built.

"Old Toby Town," as residents call it, is a fraying photograph, a story passed on, a place 65-year-old Alice Martin, daughter of Clem and wife of Daniel, points to as "somewhere over there behind the tennis court . . . where you took a bath in a big round tin." It was a place 27-year-old Ethel May Chambers left "just to get away from the shacks."

But still--years after the national microscope has been put away, years after all the federal money and the passing of the civil rights movement--there are questions: What happens to people when they become a national laboratory? Do houses change people's aspirations? Was the new Toby Town, located at least five miles away from the nearest transportation and racially segregated, a mistake or a courageous attempt at demonstrating what activism and concern can do to make life better for a community?

The hard statistics of Toby Town--old and new--form a picture that is like a pentimento. They tell of a community changed dramatically on the outside, but still struggling to shake off poverty and what it does to people's minds.

After a surge in employment in 1974 when nearly all 30 employable adults worked, only 13 heads of household out of 26 work now. Average household income--$8,583--is still far below the Montgomery average of $40,000-plus that county planners expect the final tabulation of the 1980 census to show. All Toby Town families but one receive a housing subsidy, although only five heads of household receive welfare payments. Fifteen of 50 adults are retired or receive disability benefits.

Eight years ago, a quarter of the adults had not gone beyond fourth grade in school. Today about 80 percent of the young people graduate from high school, but few go to college.

"The people in Toby Town have a long way to go, but they've also come a long way, a long way," said Drayton of IBM, who arrived in Toby Town soon after the 26 new homes were built under a federal housing program.

"You just have to look around you. Listen to the kids. Look at the way people are keeping up their properties. Eight years ago, if you had told me Toby Town would be like this today, I wouldn't have believed it. Then the people needed a lot of help with just basic things like living with modern conveniences. . . .

"Most people didn't have jobs. There were junk cars all over. The truancy rate was out of sight. . . . You're talking about more than new houses here."

Nine years ago, Ethel May Chambers was something of a local celebrity. Chambers had left Toby Town several years earlier to live with a teacher and in 1973 became the first resident in years to graduate from high school. She was awarded a scholarship to Montgomery College.

But Chambers, now 27, became pregnant and never enrolled in college. Today she lives with her mother and her son Benji in Toby Town. After working for three years as a maid, she has been out of work for a year and a half.

"I have a friend who graduated around the same time as I did and is now at college in Tennessee. . . . I always say to her that I'm a nut. 'I could have followed right behind you,' " Chamber now says of her decision not to go to college: "I guess now I really feel kind of low because there were so many things I thought I would do."

Adds Greg Frazier, the day-care director and tenant counselor: "You've got to remember you just can't change people in or two or maybe even 20 years. Houses are not enough."

Melvin Martin, 41, is a happy man these days. Last week, Martin, a county school bus driver by day and computer programmer by night, became the first Toby Town resident to buy one of the new homes.

"I have set a great example for the people here," a proud, bespectacled Martin said from his single-story, one-bedroom home. "Now they know that, just like the rich people in the Potomac, they can also buy in Potomac."

As is often the case in Toby Town, there's another side to Martin's personal triumph. Martin's purchase of his home last week was also the first step in nearly 20 years of broken promises and disappointment for the 26 families.

First there were delays in construction. In 1967, after the area was declared an urban renewal zone, qualifying it for federal funds, plans to build the houses in six months were announced. But it was not until Feb. 5, 1972, that the ground-breaking ceremony was held, after five years of bureaucratic hitches such as changes in federal housing regulations and in construction plans. In December of the same year, the residents began to move into the new homes, which were constructed with a $775,000 loan from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Even then, residents now say, they thought it would only be a matter of a few years before their new homes, like their old homes, would be their own. At that time the only costs the residents incurred were property taxes on the land first purchased in 1875 for $20 an acre by their ancestors, three former slaves.

Under the federal and county proposal, the residents relinquished their property--which by then had been passed on so many times that ownership records were unclear--in return for a guarantee that they could move into the new homes. They pay 25 percent of their income as rent, with a portion of it applied toward the purchase of their homes. The sale prices of the houses, averaging from $27,000 to $30,000, have remained constant.

"When the county first started talking about building the homes, we all were asking: Is it really going to happen?" remembered Martin, the son of Maggie Davis, 81, after whose uncle, Tobias Martin, the community was named. "But it's taken much too long to buy and a lot of people here are very frustrated."

Martin, president of the community's home buyers association, said residents talk to him about their frustrations. He said that some residents have not been able to find out how much their homes will cost because the housing commission says the cost of minor physical changes--which will be added to the price of the houses--have not yet been calculated.

Other residents say they feel they were cheated out of their ancestors' land. According to Martin, Toby Town has dwindled gradually, due to foreclosures and unwise trading, from an approximately 200-acre plot in 1875, running from River Road to the C & O Canal, to its present five acres.

And soon, he may begin to hear about residents who may never be able to buy their homes because they are not working. Residents must be employed to qualify for a loan, according to Joyce Siegel, spokeswoman for the county's Housing Opportunities Commission.

Martin, who has lived by himself in one of the smaller homes since 1972, signed a deed for the house last week at a price of $15,363, down from its original price of $17,110 because of his monthly rental contributions. Martin also had to make a down payment of at least 5 percent of the selling price.

But still, the events that led to Martin's purchase of his home and those that are expected to follow him could not have happened 10 years ago. Only two residents had full-time jobs when construction of the new houses began, and observers described an environment of passivity and ennui. In contrast, Martin holds two jobs.

Two other families also are expected to buy their homes soon, Siegel said.

"The test for Toby Town will be what happens to these young people," says Siegel, a housing commissioner when ground was broken for the new homes. "If people can come back in 20 years and these kids are doing better than their parents then the federal investment will have been worth it."

The role education plays in the lives of Toby Town children has changed dramatically in the past decade. The once-major problems with truancy have "improved vastly" says Catherine Derby, principal of Travilah Elementary School in Potomac where 20 Toby Towners are pupils.

Derby, like many Toby Town residents, attributes the educational turnaround to Greg Frazier, the community's day-care director and tenant relations counselor for the past four years. Frazier, an employe of the housing commission, visits the schools of Toby Town students weekly and every day after school runs a homework and tutoring clinic for about 20 students.

"I'm the kids' advocate," Frazier says. "There are a lot of parents here without high school diplomas who give their kids a lot of support, but most of them--because of their own bad experiences--don't."

The new emphasis on education has paid off for other residents as well. Two years ago, Melvin Martin was the first Toby Town resident to receive a college degree, when he earned a bachelor of arts in computer programming, and one high school graduate, 17-year-old Bunny Davis, is expected to attend Bowie State College next year. Davis' two older sisters also attended college.

But still, within these tales of success, there are stories of unmet expectations--of the effects of the constant poking and peeping by the outside world--that are as much a part of Toby Town's history as its accomplishments.

"Sometimes you feel like you're just spinning wheels and not getting anywhere," says Frazier, who usually jumps to defend Toby Town.

Unemployment is high and none of the residents with jobs are professionals, according to the housing agency. Two are bus drivers, some work as domestics and others work in construction or secretarial jobs. One is a bank teller.

Asked what Toby Town residents consider a good job, Ethel May Chambers answered, "something like a bank teller." Another young resident said, "one where you have to wear fancy clothes."

Frazier added, "Still the big goal here is to graduate from high school. Kids just aren't talking about college or being doctors or lawyers."

Some blame these limited aspirations on the isolation--physically and racially--of Toby Town. There are only four "outside" families or families who were not part of the original Toby Town. Nearly everyone is a Davis, Martin or Chambers. Some residents do not have cars and the nearest public transportation is more than five miles away at Potomac Village. The children of Toby Towners rarely leave, or if they do, many, like Chambers, return.

Says Chambers, "Sometimes you just feel stuck. If you don't have a car you have to wait for someone to take you every place." Chambers also believes that the close family ties lead to frustrations. "It would be better if it was a mixed community, a place where you didn't constantly see your relatives."

The lasting effects of the national spotlight are impossible to measure, say most who have observed the transformation of Toby Town. But it is not hard to imagine what the old Toby Town would have been like if the new Toby Town had never been built.

"You know, I like it here," says 65-year-old Alice Martin, whose daughter lives in a house next door. "It was amazing to think that we could live in something as decent as this after living in something that was so cold. . . . But changed? Really changed? I don't think we changed much. We're neater. People seem to have much more responsbility in trying to keep their houses up. But there's no difference in their attitudes. They seem the same to me.

"We just live better."