The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

There’s more to fighting racism than getting rid of a Confederate statue

Montgomery County needs to reckon with its history of discriminatory housing practices.

A bronze statue of a Confederate soldier in Rockville that is soon to be removed. (Photo courtesy David Rotenstein)

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett announced this past week that a controversial statue commemorating the Confederacy has been sold and will be moved off public property in Rockville, Md. The news capped almost two years of debate that began after Dylann Roof murdered nine people in a historic African American church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015.

Montgomery County was one of many jurisdictions wrestling, in the wake of Roof’s crime, with what to do with symbols celebrating the Confederacy: South Carolina removed the Confederate flag from its statehouse, Yale scrubbed the name of segregationist John C. Calhoun from a building, and the Alexandria City Council in Virginia voted to rename Jefferson Davis Highway . Montgomery needed a new home for the statue, plus approval from the Maryland Historical Trust and the Rockville Historic District Commission to remove it. White’s Ferry on the Potomac eventually agreed to take it; now, the life-size bronze soldier will be seen only by customers of the 19th-century ferry and people intentionally trekking to visit it.

But ditching a century-old memorial — celebrating a period long past, built by people long dead — doesn’t address other, more subtle markers of white supremacy, including the county’s legacy of segregated housing in residential subdivisions and apartment communities.

One such example is Silver Spring’s E. Brooke Lee Middle School. Established in 1966, the school is named for Col. Edward Brooke Lee (1892-1984), a former Maryland secretary of state and a founder of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. Lee was Lincoln confidant Francis Preston Blair’s great-grandson and the scion of a regional political dynasty. History books and academic articles uniformly describe him as the father of modern Silver Spring.

Though Lee spent much of his life in politics, his wealth came from real estate. His companies bought up large swaths of former farmland in Northwest Washington and lower Montgomery County. He then subdivided the land and gave new names to the developments: Fairway, Country Club View and Forest Hills of Sligo Park, to name a few.

That history is well documented. Less well known is the fact that Lee attached racial restrictive covenants to all his suburban properties. These prohibited African Americans from buying or renting homes in the subdivisions. They could live in these new suburbs only if they were domestic servants.

By the time the Supreme Court ruled racial restrictive covenants unenforceable in 1948, most of Silver Spring — from the District line west to Rock Creek and north to White Oak — was covered by racially restricted subdivisions, many of them developed by Lee and his business partners.

It took an additional 20 years for Montgomery County to pass an open-housing law prohibiting discrimination based on race. As county leaders were debating new civil rights measures, Lee was railing against them in local newspapers. As late as 1967, the septuagenarian was calling on residents to reject what he described as “Anti-White laws” that he perceived as a threat to the suburbs he built. “Desegregation is not the answer,” Lee wrote that spring.

The discriminatory practices that defined Lee’s time in Montgomery County had region-wide effects. With few places open to them, African Americans had to crowd into communities like Lyttonsville, which had no paved streets or running water until the 1960s. Black employees of federal agencies with offices in the county couldn’t live where they worked. In testimony submitted to the Montgomery County Human Relations Commission in 1966, Assistant Postmaster General Richard Murphy described the human face of the housing discrimination Lee favored: “Negro employees can be and are assigned to work in Montgomery County. They can sort mail there, they can deliver letters there, they can serve the people who live there, but too often they can’t live there.”

Lee’s segregationist legacies remain imprinted in Montgomery County more than two generations after legal and de facto discrimination ended. They’re visible in the more than 40 black hamlets such as Lyttonsville and Sandy Spring, where resilience in the face of racism forged strong community bonds. Urban-renewal programs and increased suburban diversity, in large part due to civil rights laws and litigation since 1970, have made these neighborhoods more heterogenous. Those ugly legacies survive in the concentration of poverty in apartment communities like the Flower Branch complex in Silver Spring, where seven people died and 39 were injured in a 2016 explosion that lawsuits allege was a result of neglect. And segregation lives on in Tobytown, a historically black, impoverished neighborhood that has been imploring the county for a bus stop for more than 30 years. Half its residents can’t afford cars.

Memorials and monuments to Lee and his segregationist contemporaries are harder to address and erase because they represent people and actions of a much more recent past than the Civil War — and because the consequences are structural and remain in place. We can’t box up every legacy of white supremacy that persists in the county and ship them off to White’s Ferry. But we can reevaluate Montgomery County’s history to confront racial biases in the historical record. At a minimum, existing narratives like the “About Our School” page at Col. E. Brooke Lee Middle School should reflect Lee’s role in segregating the county.

The structural racism Americans see today — in policing, in housing and employment discrimination, in anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic hate crimes — is a legacy of earlier white supremacy. To understand these issues, we need to connect them to their historical antecedents. This can happen by leveraging existing public history programs in our schools, government agencies and organizations like the Montgomery County Historical Society. By learning from the past, we can elevate history beyond colorful stories about bygone times and use it to break the cycle of racism.