Annie Collins says social change wasn't on the family agenda when she and her husband moved from Baltimore in 1959 to the Colesville area community of Good Hope. "But a problem would come up," she said, "and we're problem solvers."
Over the years, the Collinses and their neighbors have taken the small black community's fight for better housing and schools to the Montgomery County Council and the county school and planning boards. A 104-unit, federally subsidized apartment complex and sewer and water service for all of Good Hope are among the results.
For nearly 50 years, the family of Alma Snowden and her late husband, Robert, have served black residents of the county with their funeral service, relocated to Rockville from neighboring Howard County by his father in 1926. The Snowdens oversee about 300 funerals a year and "know the families of practically 90 percent of the people we serve," said their daughter, Irene Curry.
Gloria Owens, a program analyst for the U.S. Public Health Service, moved with her disabled husband and children to a previously all-white neighborhood of Kensington in 1964. Their seven children went on to be class leaders, and Gloria Owens saw them through colleges and graduate schools.
The Owens, Collins and Snowden families were recently honored at a dinner by the Montgomery County branch of the NAACP for distinction in education, "community awareness, citizenship and human kindness."
The three "represent a strength that is not uncommon among black families," said Roscoe Nix, president of the county NAACP chapter.
Public recognition of unified, achieving black families is important because "there has been a lot of negative propaganda about black families, based not necessarily on malice, but on ignorance," Nix said.
Black families have been seen as "having no aspirations or initiative, always following the line of least resistance or waiting for a handout," Nix said. "The American public does not know the extent the black family has held together against terrific odds."
When the Collinses moved to the rural Good Hope area, most of the single-family houses lacked water and sewer service. When the county came up with a plan to buy the property and replace the structures, Good Hope residents feared that displaced families could not afford the new housing the county planned to build.
The community formed a nonprofit corporation, Great Hope Inc., to sponsor construction of the 104-unit apartment complex on Good Hope Road. Sewer and water service was made available to all houses in the area.
In the schools Good Hope children were attending, Annie Collins, a biochemist with the National Institutes of Health, said she saw an inordinate number of children being placed in special education classes for slow learners. The children were not in need of special education but were having problems communicating with their teachers, she said.
As a member of several board of education committees, she worked to help teachers and administrators become more sensitive to the backgrounds and needs of the Good Hope children.
The Collinses were known as "Mom" and "Dad" to many in the community, and their front door and refrigerator were always open to neighborhood children, Annie Collins said. Ed Collins, a community development coordinator with the county government, was a baseball coach for the local sports league, and the couple became foster parents to two young homeless brothers from the community.
Alma Snowden and her late husband, Robert, had nearly all of the black funeral business in the county for several recent generations, said Irene Curry. Today, Snowden stays in touch with daily affairs, but the business is run by Curry and her brother, George R. Snowden. Irene's son Robert and George's wife Shirley also work in the business.
Black families come to the Snowdens for the traditional type of funerals the firm offers, Curry said. "Blacks still like to go through the full mourning period of four to five days" with formal and elaborate wake, funeral and burial procedures, she said.
"I would have been someplace else years ago . . . but my dad wanted me to be here with him," Curry said. Before her father died in 1979, "he asked me to stay and please help run the business. A lot of people said they were glad to see us stay together . . . . "
Gloria Owens said that when her family moved to Kensington from the District in 1964, the general reaction of the all-white neighborhood "was wonderful." The women of the area held a welcoming reception, and only one neighbor was initially hostile.
Owens' husband, retired from the Army on a medical disability, was unable to work, and she raised the seven children, now aged 21 to 29, largely on her own.
The "love, respect and mutual support" among the family members helped them succeed, she said.
In Newport Junior High and Albert Einstein Senior High schools, Owens' children were at various times student body president, class treasurer, honor society officer, member of the state superintendent of education's student advisory committee, cheerleaders and athletes.
One son now in medical school was invited back to the high school during his undergraduate years at the University of Virginia to be Einstein's graduation speaker.