The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A university town explores reparations for a Black community uprooted by urban renewal

The Lakeland neighborhood of College Park, Md., was torn apart as cities across the country pursued renewal projects

Violetta Sharps, Miss Lakeland 1963, greets the crowd during the Elks Day Parade in Lakeland, College Park, Md. (Courtesy of Violetta Sharps Jones)
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On a sunny spring day in 1963, 14-year-old Violetta Sharps Jones rode atop a burgundy red convertible down the main street of her segregated neighborhood in College Park, Md. Adorned with a tiara and white sash reading “Miss Lakeland,” she waved to the crowd, representing the aspirations of four generations of African Americans who built the thriving community near the University of Maryland.

“It was such an honor,” said Jones, who is now vice-chair of the Lakeland Community Heritage Project, which documents the neighborhood’s history. She added, “You talk about a village raising a child. That’s what Lakeland was.”

Established at the turn of the 20th century on land prone to flooding, Lakeland was the only place in College Park that African Americans could live at the time, according to Mary Seis, a University of Maryland American Studies professor whose students have conducted oral histories with Lakelanders for the Heritage Project.

With 150 single-family homes, one of the only Black high schools in Prince George’s County, churches and dozens of social clubs and businesses, the community — which was less than one square mile — was a place where neighbors were literally families. Grandparents built houses for children, nieces or nephews on nearby plots.

“It was just a given that whatever you need, somehow the community will pull together and provide it for you,” Jones said.

But by the early 1980s, all of that was gone. Several phases of urban renewal had bulldozed 104 of those 150 homes to the ground, leaving only a third of original Lakelanders in the community.

Now, amid a racial reckoning following George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis last year, College Park is one of a small handful of cities seeking to rectify the damage to Black communities from federal urban renewal programs.

Last fall, the College Park City Council issued an official apology to Lakeland and called for a restorative justice process to “seek opportunities for accountability and truth-telling about past injustice.”

That gave rise to the Restorative Justice Steering Committee, which on Tuesday will provide a list of recommendations to the city council for setting up a six-year restorative justice process and a commission to lead it. According to Maxine Gross, a Lakelander who serves on the committee and is also chair of the Lakeland Heritage Project, the process will help residents who were harmed by urban renewal tell their stories and will figure out the best way to compensate them for those harms.

That could make College Park one of the first cities in the country to provide reparations specifically to undo the legacy of urban renewal. A few other cities, including Asheville, N.C., and Athens, Ga., are also contemplating reparations to address urban renewal.

Exactly what shape those reparations might take in Lakeland is not yet clear since the process is still in its early stages, said College Park Mayor Patrick Wojahn. He said College Park has already received half of its $21 million in American Rescue Act funds, and part of that money will go toward the restorative justice process.

Potential reparations include neighborhood stabilization programs, which are used to assist communities with high foreclosure rates and provide funds to low- and middle-income households, and formal preservation of the community’s history through a cultural center and public projects. Compensation could also take the form of low-income housing and other kinds of financial support, which Wojahn said will unfold as the commission gets underway.

“Unfortunately, the story of Lakeland is not unique,” Gross said. “The same thing happened over and over again across the country.”

Famously described by author James Baldwin as “Negro removal,” urban renewal programs swept U.S. cities and towns during the 1950s and ’60s. Officials used the 1949 Housing Act, the 1956 Interstate Highway Act and eminent domain to seize substandard properties and make way for improved housing and infrastructure projects.

The projects disproportionally affected communities of color. Between 1955 and 1966, more than 300,000 families across the United States were displaced, most of them people of color, according to a database produced by the University of Richmond.

Urban renewal is often studied through the lens of Black communities in large U.S. cities where major highways bisected neighborhoods like Miami’s Overtown and New Orleans’s Treme. But the majority of urban renewal projects occurred in cities of less than 50,000, including College Park, according to the database, and often had devastating consequences.

A fifth-generation Lakelander, Gross said a lot of homes in her neighborhood were built by neighbors helping each other out. “If you needed something fixed, you’d call a friend or a relative,” she said, because most Lakelanders couldn’t afford professionals. Since Black Americans from different classes lived there, the housing stock ranged from nice brick homes to small wooden houses; some were severely damaged by flooding, while others were in good shape.

But public perception painted Lakeland in a worse light. Because Lakeland was the only Black neighborhood in College Park, by the 1960s, officials concerned about property values branded it as dilapidated. A 1980 Washington Post real estate article described the former community as “deteriorating,” “run-down” and a “slum.”

Courtnie Thurston, who is writing her master’s thesis on Lakeland and urban renewal at Morgan State University, said the language reflected the patronizing attitude of city officials and developers, who ignored the fact that many Lakeland families built their own homes and passed them down from generation to generation.

“It’s paternalistic to come in and tell someone they have to give up their family home and instead live in an apartment and pay rent,” Jones agreed. “What about passing along your assets to your children like Lakelanders had done?”

In 1968, College Park got funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to address flooding, repave roads and rebuild substandard housing.

“Originally, it was sold as a positive thing for Lakeland,” said Jones, whose childhood home was on the east side of the railroad tracks, an area that sometimes flooded. At public meetings, officials stressed that redevelopment was necessary to fix up the neighborhood. But Jones said developers were thinking only about property values, not about the burden of selling your home with no guarantee that you could own again.

“My mother and many in the Black community saw this as a way to seize our property and remove us,” Jones said.

Residents worried officials wouldn’t follow through on their promises, including one to convert Lakeland High School, which closed in the early 1950s, into a community center. But after two years of heated meetings, Lakelanders eventually voted in favor of a referendum to accept the HUD funds in 1970.

Renewal was expected to take five years, Gross said, and homeowners who were forced out would then be relocated back to Lakeland. But bureaucracy and the inflation of the early 1970s caused delays, cost overruns and changes to the plans. By 1974, instead of single-family homes, a new developer proposed building one- and two-bedroom apartments, subsidized townhouses and senior housing.

Rather than stay and face the inevitable loss of their family home with no adequate replacement, Jones says her mother was one of the first to leave.

“She thought she should take the money early because they may not have any later,” Jones said. A document from the city of College Park shows that her parents, William and Lucille Sharps, received $26,200 in exchange for their condemned Lakeland home on Feb. 5, 1975.

Later that year, bulldozers began razing homes, businesses and favorite gathering places like the Lakeland Tavern, an Elks Hall and an American legion post that hosted dances and community picnics.

“My brother used to call the bulldozer — it must have been a seven-ton Caterpillar — the ‘giant eraser,’ ” 30-year-old Harry Braxton Jr. told The Post in 1982.

Jones’s mother settled in nearby Lanham, but Jones says it couldn’t replace the community she’d known all her life.

Nowadays, Lakeland’s apartment towers of one- and two-bedroom units are filled with University of Maryland faculty and students, many of whom are unaware of the community that once existed where their homes now stand.

Gross said the goal of the current restorative justice effort is to give voice to the people who were harmed. “In the process,” she said, “you make the community and the individuals whole again from the damage that was caused.”

The loss of generational wealth from losing homes is one of the major issues the commission will seek to remedy, Gross said. “Now the market has priced homes so high in Lakeland, working families can’t afford them,” she explained.

As part of the reparations, Gross, Jones and other Lakelanders would also like to see the University of Maryland, a major employer in Lakeland, support educational opportunities to help more Black students attend school there.

There are still hurdles to the group’s ambitions. On Nov. 16, for instance, the Prince George’s County Council will hold a public hearing on whether to approve an amended redistricting map that would move Lakeland into a new district, whose leadership may not be as familiar with Lakeland’s history or as supportive of the reparations process.

With restorative justice efforts ongoing, Jones and Gross said they’ll continue their work with the community heritage project by gathering more documentation, adding to their digital archives and conducting more oral histories so Lakeland’s legacy won’t be lost.

“I fight for Lakelanders because they’re the ones who made it possible for me to grow up and have this history to share with my children and grandchildren,” Jones said. “These people overcame a lot and survived and created a great community for us. And it was all taken away. That needs to be acknowledged.”