Odessa Shannon was living in the District in 1966 when she decided she wanted better schools for her children. So she started looking at homes in Montgomery County, which was then predominantly white.
When she approached a house in Chevy Chase with a for-sale sign, she spotted the real estate agent slipping out a side window, apparently opting to flee rather than show the home to a black family.
“I’d heard Montgomery was this liberal place. But climbing out the kitchen window?” Shannon, now 86, recalled Tuesday.
Her family eventually settled in Colesville, in the eastern part of the county. In 1982, Shannon won a seat on the Board of Education, the first African American woman to hold elected office in Montgomery. She achieved this milestone, she said, by keeping her picture off the campaign literature she distributed in certain neighborhoods.
“They thought I was Irish,” Shannon said.
Her recollections were part of a riveting 90 minutes of testimony Tuesday before the Montgomery County Council, which marked Black History Month by hearing from veterans of the jurisdiction’s civil rights struggle.
The activists, ranging in age from 76 to 95, were invited by Council President George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) to share their stories. Their collective history — a sobering counterpoint to Montgomery’s reputation as a bastion of progressivism and tolerance — took on an even greater resonance against the present-day backdrop of racial tension in Ferguson, Mo., and the rallying cry that “black lives matter.”
Harvey Zeigler, 95, grew up in Jim Crow-era Damascus, where everything from swimming pools to churches were off-limits to him and other black individuals. He described his anguish at returning home in 1946, after four years in the Army, to discover that nothing had changed. When he applied for membership at the American Legion, he was told that it “wasn’t accepting any more colored applications.”
Zeigler went on to organize civil rights marches and pushed for equal opportunity at the Atomic Energy Commission offices in Germantown, where he worked in the 1960s.
Others who addressed the council, including Shannon, advanced the cause of civil rights by becoming “a first.”
Warren Crutchfield, 78, was the county’s first black varsity sports coach, whose posts included leading the girls’ basketball team at Sherwood High before his retirement in 1996. At some road games in the early days, he recalled, he was stopped at the door and asked to pay admission because nobody believed that he was the coach.
“I said, ‘I’m not paying — and you watch who coaches this team,’ ” said Crutchfield, a fifth-generation county resident who can trace his roots to freed slaves who settled in Rockville.
Christine “Tina” Clarke, 76, picketed the whites-only amusement park in Glen Echo in 1960, joining with Howard University students and some neighborhood residents. The facility was opened to all a year later. She also remembers being barred from trying on clothes in Rockville department stores. Even handling a hat, she said, required her to place a paper bag over her head first.
“Growing up black in Montgomery, it was a painful experience all around,” Clarke said.
While the speakers reflected on how far they’d come, they also expressed disappointment over what they saw as troubling areas where progress has slowed — or even regressed: rates of black incarceration, the academic achievement gap separating black students from other groups, blatant disrespect they believe is shown toward President Obama and his family.
Shannon said she had once heard someone say that Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther King Jr. could march, King marched so Barack Obama could run and Obama ran so black children could fly. “I can tell you that right now, our children are not flying,” she said.
Craig Rice (D-Upcounty), 42, the only African American on the council, added his generation’s voice toward the end of the discussion. He recalled being derided as an “oreo” when he was one of just three blacks in Montgomery Blair High School’s prestigious science magnet program. “Because I didn’t talk like other black kids, I didn’t act like other black kids,” he said.
Rice, one of the council’s most stylish dressers, said there’s a reason he pays such careful attention to his appearance. “My mother told me you need to defy expectations every day you walk out of the house,” he said. “You need to make sure people don’t define you in a certain way.”
As a case in point, Rice described an incident not long ago at a Giant supermarket near his Germantown home. Dressed in sweatpants, he was stopped by an employee as he walked out the door and asked whether he’d paid for his groceries. Since then, he said, he makes sure to prominently display a receipt when he leaves a store.
“This is something that is ingrained in us,” Rice said. “Solely because I’m black, I carry myself differently.”
Although Montgomery county executive Isiah Leggett (D), who is also black, did not attend Tuesday’s session, he shared a similar incident in December. He said he’d been spoken to in a “very derogatory manner” by a Maryland-National Capital Park Police officer as he placed a campaign sign in front of a community center near his Burtonsville home. Leggett was without his security detail and was dressed in jeans and a ball cap.
Said Rice on Tuesday: “Much has changed, but much is still the same.”