Eugene L. Meyer, a former Post reporter and editor, is the author of “Five for Freedom: The African American Soldiers in John Brown’s Army.”
Residents gathered last month at a rickety old wooden bridge over train tracks to celebrate the bridge’s centennial — and its demolition.
For generations, the tracks had divided black Lyttonsville from white North Woodside, both within the unincorporated suburb of Silver Spring but, for too long, worlds apart.
The Talbot Avenue bridge linked them only so residents of the historic African American community could get to work as domestic help or to shop for food.
Now, a century after it was constructed, the one-lane bridge had been deemed structurally unsafe, cars had been banned, and, after a long struggle, plans emerged to replace it with a safer, two-lane version that also included a pedestrian path. Work is to begin next year.
The old bridge was passing into history, a stark symbol of segregation but also a limited passage to opportunity. Silver Spring, today a multicultural suburb abutting the District, had within living memory been unwelcoming to blacks. As a white resident said in 1967 to Judith Viorst, writing then for Washingtonian magazine, “It’s nice; there’s no colored here.”
It is a history little known in today’s Maryland suburbs. Yet, these painful truths were key to the commemoration, recalled by older black residents and recited by the younger white president of the North Woodside/Montgomery Hills neighborhood association, David Cox.
“Bridges are powerful symbols,” said Cox. “They are often symbols for good, for progress, but they can also be symbols of division and barriers. This bridge, our bridge, has been both.”
Cox then read from a 1923 North Woodside deed that said, “For the purposes of sanitation and health, the buyers shall not sell or lease the said land to anyone of the race whose death rate is higher than that of the white race.”
Crossing the bridge took them to neighborhoods where they were excluded, demeaned, discriminated against and not allowed to live except as servants. Racial covenants were pervasive throughout Silver Spring, Cox noted, and, even when they were outlawed, attitudes persisted.
“I’m so sorry,” said Cox, tearing up.
But no matter how menial or degrading their jobs were, the African Americans had to be deferential to their white domestic employers. Yet., in Lyttonsville, “When they came across the tracks after a hard day’s work, they came into an area of respect,” recalled Charlotte Coffield, 85, a lifelong Lyttonsville resident.
Founded in 1853, Lyttonsville was named for Samuel Lytton, a free man of color who owned the tract. For years, its children attended the nearby two-room Linden School, with a potbellied stove for heat, hand-me-down books for study and no indoor plumbing, just an outdoor toilet. Films were shown at the school; African Americans were barred from Silver Spring movie theaters. In 1955, the black school wasn’t integrated but simply torn down.
Until the late 1960s, Lyttonsville’s roads were dirt and gravel, and the community lacked indoor plumbing. Water came from a nearby spring or from a spigot on Brookville Road, with users paying a $50 annual fees to the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. When redevelopment came in 1968, streets were paved and many of the homes demolished and replaced by modular houses. Some residents stayed or returned; others did not.
The neighborhood of some 70 homes is now well-integrated, but a core of the original black residents remains. Among them is Pat Tyson, 76, a retired State Department employee. The bridge, she said at the centennial event, has “been a path of struggle, of courage, of confidence and love. In life we have to work together.” Even as the tracks divided the communities, she added, “The bridge brought us together.”
The Talbot Avenue bridge had been closed once before, in 1996, then reopened, over the protests of North Woodside residents. This time, when it reopens bigger and better than before, the two sides will be happily in accord over its existence.
The centennial ceremony, attended by upward of 200 people, was a notable effort at truth and reconciliation, a path that many communities in the South, including in border states such as Maryland, have yet to follow, as battle lines are drawn over Confederate memorials. In its own understated way, the Talbot Avenue bridge is no less a symbol than the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, though not as readily apparent to casual viewers.
“My constant prayer,” said Coffield, “is that what was divided in our communities at one time is history, and in today’s world we can look at this celebration as a united step into the future.”