Monocacy Cemetery in tiny Beallsville looms large in the county’s past and present. For a century, a granite tablet there has honored 32 men of Montgomery who crossed the Potomac River to enlist in the 35th Battalion Virginia Cavalry to fight for the South under Elijah Viers White, a native of Dickerson who moved to Leesburg in Loudoun County before the war.
A small chapel near the tablet was the meeting place for the E.V. White Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy until it folded in 1947. Above the small lectern hung a sign: “Lest We Forget.” Behind it: two flags—the Stars and Stripes and the Stars and Bars—and framed portraits of Confederate icons Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
On a recent visit, I found a plywood board, painted gray, covering the granite memorial. With Confederate statues and monuments being defaced and toppled, a groundskeeper said, the cemetery board had opted to hide the tablet’s face, which displayed the names of the Montgomery men who fought to preserve their way of life, based on human bondage.
Montgomery County was not unique, located in a former slave state south of the Mason-Dixon Line and therefore in the “Dixie” of legend and song. Southern families ran the county into the middle of the 20th century, when newcomers—largely Northerners who moved to D.C. to work for the government—began migrating to the suburbs. Seemingly overnight, they changed the county’s political and social complexion, infusing it with new ideas that led to the integration of schools, playgrounds, restaurants and movie theaters, and reframed Montgomery as a suburban county in the vanguard of progressive change.
What came before was a long history of racism. Following emancipation were lynchings and Jim Crow laws that imposed widespread segregation. Racial covenants and redlining were pervasive; segregated Black communities lacked such basic amenities as indoor plumbing and paved roads well into the latter half of the 20th century.
In 1860, on the cusp of the Civil War, 38% of the county’s 18,322 inhabitants were Black—5,421 enslaved, 1,552 free. The county was agrarian; close-in suburbs had yet to form. Settlers had migrated in the 18th century from southern Maryland, bringing with them slaves who had worked in the labor-intensive tobacco fields. Here, the farmers, finding the Piedmont soil inhospitable to tobacco, grew wheat and other grains, but they continued to depend on slaves to sustain their way of life.
Poolesville was second in importance only to Rockville, 17 miles distant. It was the center of the Medley Election District, named for a Seneca tavern owner whose establishment was used as a polling place, and it contained some of the county’s largest plantations.
In Rockville, then as now the county seat, Charles M. Price was a slave trader who worried about runaway slaves and slave rebellions. Price placed an ad in the pro-slavery Montgomery Sentinel on Dec. 8, 1855, for Anna Maria Weems, “about 15 years of age; a bright mulatto; some small freckles on her face; slender person, thick suit of hair, inclined to be sandy,” offering $500, nearly $20,000 in today’s dollars, for her return. Aided by Boston transplant Jacob Bigelow, a lawyer for the Washington Gas Light Co., she would successfully escape, eventually to Canada.
Another Sentinel ad announced: “Public Sales Four Negroes, 1 man 19 years old, 1 boy 12, 1 girl 13, 1 woman 50—all slaves for life. Five head of horses, 2 cows, 15 head of hogs, sow and shoats.” And yet another Sentinel ad offered “very highest cash prices for negroes that are young and likely.”
Hoping to incite a slave rebellion, in October 1859 John Brown staged his daring, if unsuccessful raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. In response, Price was among those with officer rank in a militia newly formed “for the protection of their homes and firesides, in these times of excitement.” At a Poolesville meeting, citizens resolved “that in view of the warlike attitude taken by the North against the South, we pledge our allegiance to the South in support of our constitutional rights, and that all we have of force and means shall be devoted, when required, to protect and defend Southern rights against the aggression of the North.”
Though there hadn’t been an organized slave revolt in the county, one originating in Charles County in 1845 ultimately reached Montgomery. The runaways—armed with pistols, scythe blades, bludgeons, swords, knives and clubs—were bound for the free state of Pennsylvania. They marched six abreast up today’s Route 355. Two miles south of Gaithersburg, they were confronted by a local militia, the Montgomery Volunteers, and a posse of citizens enlisted by Sheriff Daniel Hayes Candler, who lived in Rockville with his wife and five slaves. The insurrectionists fought back.
A report in the Rockville Register reprinted in full on the front page of The Baltimore Sun on July 12, 1845, blared “GREAT EXCITEMENT. Runaway Slaves.” The report said “these daring negroes” numbered 40, though there were rumors of nearly 200. In the confrontation, 10 were severely wounded. A large number escaped and were never recaptured. The rest—31, according to the newspaper—were led away in chains to the Rockville jail before being sold out of state by their owners. “This is the most daring movement which has ever come under our observation,” the Maryland Journal said. “We have heard of gangs of negroes travelling through parts of the country sparsely inhabited, but never before have we heard of their taking to the public road in open day, within 2 miles of a County town.”
Far better known is the story of Josiah Henson, who escaped from the Riley plantation on Old Georgetown Road. With his wife and children, he fled to Canada, where he founded the Dawn Settlement and was said to have been the inspiration for Uncle Tom in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Not surprisingly, Abraham Lincoln received only 50 of 2,400 votes cast in Montgomery County—2% of the total—in the 1860 presidential election. Lincoln received only one vote in Medley, the rest in Sandy Spring, a largely Quaker community.
When war came, many of the planters’ sons headed south; the yeomen tended to join the Union army, though in smaller numbers. Slavery cleaved the county and its citizens. In the up-county Medley District, a Union draft agent canvassing for eligibles wrote “Gone South” next to every name.
Anti-abolitionist sentiment was strongly reflected in an 1864 referendum when Montgomery residents voted 3-1 against a new state constitution that freed the slaves (it passed statewide, but barely, on the strength of absentee ballots from Union troops). During the constitutional convention preceding the referendum, George Peter Jr., son of Montgomery County’s largest slaveholder, declared that “if we desire to render a people unhappy, turbulent and dissatisfied, we can adopt no surer plan than depriving them of that which they are justly entitled to, without a just cause or a just compensation.”
There would be no compensation. As for the freedmen, following emancipation, 133 former slaves either enlisted, were drafted or “left with military,” according to the census. While the war raged, control of Poolesville changed hands several times. Both sides foraged supplies from local farms (and farm owners sought government compensation for the raids). Matthew Fields, editor of the Sentinel, was confined to the Old Capitol Prison for his secessionist sentiments.
The men who fought for the Confederacy came home from war defeated but unbowed. They would run the county for decades as state senators, judges, county commissioners. With names like Allnutt, Beall, Butler, Chiswell, Dade, Darby, Dickerson and Elgin, down through the alphabet, they were known as the “ABCs” of Montgomery County.
As the county recovered from the ravages of war, life for some could still be genteel. On a special day in June—marked throughout the South as Confederate Memorial Day—families gathered at Monocacy Cemetery. The women brought box lunches, the children marched, politicians spoke. It was a celebration of a lost cause that seemed to live on in Montgomery County and elsewhere in the vicinity.
Despite the 1864 emancipation in Maryland—unique among slave states still in the Union during the war—it wasn’t until Jan. 23, 1867, that the Maryland General Assembly outlawed “the sale of negroes into slavery as punishment for crime,” reported The New York Times. “There will hereafter be no distinction in the State in the mode of punishing white and black criminals,” according to the Times article.
Then came the lynchings, two in 1880, one in 1896, carried out by “parties unknown,” grand juries concluded, against Black men accused of assaulting young white women in Darnestown, Poolesville and Gaithersburg. “The region around…the capital of the Nation has become notorious for the punishment of colored criminals by Lynch law, and for a public sentiment which supports those who in this way administer what they believe justice demands,” the Times wrote after the Poolesville lynching of George Peck, a man described in The Washington Post on Jan. 13, 1880, as “a disreputable negro.” A second lynching, of John Diggs-Dorsey, occurred in Rockville that June.
The last lynch victim in the county was Sidney Randolph, 28, an itinerant worker and one of 78 Black Americans lynched nationwide in 1896, the year the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson enshrined “separate but equal” as the law of the land. Randolph was accused of attacking a white family in Gaithersburg, leading to the death of 7-year-old Sadie Buxton. Before he could be indicted, a mob dragged him from the Rockville jail and strung him up from a chestnut tree on July 4, the 120th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. His remains are in an unmarked grave in Section 18 of Parklawn Cemetery, off Veirs Mill Road in Rockville.
Meanwhile, small Black communities founded by the free and formerly enslaved sprouted up-county. Sugarland, Jonesville, Jerusalem, Mount Ephraim, and Big Woods formed around Poolesville. Others—Scotland, Tobytown, Hawkins Lane, Lyttonsville—sprung up elsewhere. Remnants of these settlements survive: Lyttonsville, founded after the Civil War, shares the 20910 ZIP code with close-in Silver Spring. Some residents’ descendants, but few of the original homes, remain. Sugarland retains its historic church and a few homes in a rural setting a few miles south of Poolesville.
Many of the formerly enslaved up-county became tenant farmers or otherwise worked on the plantations where they’d been held in bondage. Black residents established their own institutions—churches, benevolent societies, even schools—in segregated Montgomery. For whites, there was Bethesda Park, called the “Queen of the Pleasure Grounds,” now the Sonoma and Oakmont neighborhoods off Old Georgetown Road near the National Institutes of Health. It offered a 150-person steam carousel, free concerts and a show featuring three lions. A June 18, 1893, ad in the Sentinel declared the park was “Catering to White People Only.”
Twenty years later, in Rockville, unreconstructed rebels dedicated a statue of a Confederate soldier on a granite base—inscribed “To our heroes of Montgomery County, Md. That we through life may not forget to love the thin gray line.” On June 3, 1913, Confederate Memorial Day, more than 3,000 turned out for the occasion in a county of then only 22,846 (in the 1910 census, 28.8% were Black). That would be the equivalent of 130,000 turning out today in a population of 1 million.
While 50 to 70 aged Confederate veterans looked on, the statue, wrapped in Maryland and Confederate flags, was unveiled and the American flag unfurled. Then came the playing of “Dixie,” followed by a gun salute, taps and “The Star- Spangled Banner.”
The statue stood in a small triangular park in the middle of Montgomery Avenue, at the eastern entranceway to town. It would later be moved, first to the front of the courthouse, then in 1971 around to the side, and finally, in 2020, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, to White’s Ferry by the Potomac. There, a few miles from Monocacy Cemetery, it was defaced and toppled, and then sequestered by the property owners for safekeeping.
For a Black youngster, entering downtown Rockville could be a jarring experience. Pat Tyson, 78, of Lyttonsville, recalls having to navigate past the Confederate statue smack in the middle of Montgomery Avenue at midcentury. “You’d have to go around him to get into the city,” she says. “I’d ask my father, ‘Who is that?’ He’d say, ‘Oh, he’s a soldier.’ ”
Around the same time, a 1949 book about Rockville, Western Gateway to the National Capital, still referred to the Civil War as “the War between the States,” as the South preferred to call it. And in a 1960 pamphlet, the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County asserted, “Slavery was never a big issue here, either economically or psychologically. The people took no strong part on either side…”
As late as 1960, help wanted ads for jobs in the county routinely specified race. Mrs. K’s Tollhouse in Silver Spring advertised for a dining room manager (white), waitresses (white) and kitchen help (colored). An ad for a dishwasher that appeared in the Evening Star on Jan. 14, 1960, read: “Colored, over 21: good opportunity to take charge of dish room in high-class restaurant. Don’t bother applying unless you are clean, quiet and reliable.”
In 1957, the NAACP sent teams to visit 18 restaurants in the county; two groups of six Blacks each were turned away from six restaurants, The Washington Post reported. The segregated establishments were Little Taverns in Bethesda and Silver Spring; Toddle House, Drug Fair and Hot Shoppe in Bethesda; and the Woodward & Lothrop tearoom at Wisconsin and Western avenues in Chevy Chase. “We do not serve Negroes at the Chevy Chase store,” a Woodward & Lothrop statement said. “No explanation is necessary.” Florence Orbach of the county NAACP said she was “rather pleased. We expected to be refused in many more places.”
John H. Hiser was president of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce, a founder and president of the Bethesda Rotary Club, a county councilman and a Bethesda businessman who owned a bowling alley and a movie theater—known as Hiser’s—on Wisconsin Avenue near Old Georgetown Road. He was also a staunch segregationist before and after enactment of public accommodation laws. His resistance to integration prompted a 100-hour picket by Blacks and whites in front of his theater in July 1960. Laurence Henry, a Howard University divinity student “who averaged about 20 hours a day on the line,” according to an account in The Washington Post, said the picketing lasted “one hour for each year” since 1860.
A sign posted at the theater door during the picketing said, “We shall continue our permanent policy of non-integration in the affirmed belief that it is in the best interests of our loyal and longtime patrons,” the paper reported. Protesters also picketed Hiser’s Chevy Chase home, the Washington Evening Star reported. Under public pressure, Hiser, rather than integrating, sold the theater that fall; it became the Baronet.
Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School remained virtually all white at the time, and few students participated in the protest. “I don’t think many of us gave it much thought,” recalls Barbara Johnson, B-CC class of 1961, who regularly patronized Hiser’s, “because so much was segregated then. There just wasn’t much that wasn’t.”
To counter that reality, the county council enacted a law in 1962 that banned racial and religious discrimination in public accommodations. But as a compromise to ensure the measure’s passage, it contained a “tavern exemption,” to remain in effect for five years for establishments selling alcohol as a “prominent part” of their business. Crivella’s Wayside Restaurant in downtown Silver Spring became a test case after it repeatedly refused service to Blacks who worked at the nearby office of the U.S. Labor Department. When the state sought an injunction, a compromise desegregated the restaurant’s dining room but preserved management’s right to refuse service in the bar. That was in 1966, two years after the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination in public accommodations.
Playgrounds had been segregated until 1955, when a federal appeals court ruled the practice illegal. Before then, only seven of the county’s 49 playgrounds were open to Black children (and four of the seven were at Black schools). The desegregation of Glen Echo Amusement Park came only after eight months of picketing, starting in June 1960, by Howard University students and young, white, mostly Jewish mothers pushing baby carriages from nearby Bannockburn, a postwar subdivision that had attracted white liberals who migrated from the North. “End Jim Crow at Glen Echo,” read one of the signs. Five Blacks were charged with trespassing for riding the park’s merry-go-round.
The following spring, under intense public pressure, the park reopened for all races. An Easter Monday 1966 riot, “involving thousands of Negro teenagers,” a Black newspaper reported, jarred the community. The park was sold in 1970 to the federal government, and is operated by the National Park Service.
The 1864 state constitution mandated free public schools—for whites only. The county’s first school for African Americans was founded and funded by Quakers in Sandy Spring two years later. In 1872, the state mandated public schools for Blacks, and in 1876 the county school board approved $600 to purchase a Rockville lot for that purpose.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Blacks, local government and a fund established by philanthropist and Sears, Roebuck & Co. President Julius Rosenwald paid for 5,000 new, mostly two-room schools throughout the South—including 15 in Montgomery County. But many rundown one- and two-room schools with potbellied stoves and outdoor toilets remained. Black students worked with hand-me-down textbooks from the white schools, and Black teachers were paid less than their white counterparts. That changed after William B. Gibbs, a teacher and acting principal of Rockville Colored Elementary School, petitioned the county school board in 1936 to equalize pay and then, represented by future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, filed a lawsuit. An out-of-court settlement equalized salaries for the first time.
The Supreme Court’s 1954 landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education declaring segregated schools inherently unequal promised fundamental change. There was no massive resistance in Montgomery County, as there was elsewhere. But the transition was not as smooth as has often been portrayed. It took seven years to achieve full integration.
While the executive committee of the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations and the PTAs at Black schools pushed for immediate compliance, the school board balked. First, it said there must be a state legal opinion, since Maryland law specifically provided for separate Black schools. And 3,000 up-county residents petitioned for “gradual integration.” The school board initially allowed only voluntary transfers of Black students to white schools. Then the proposal was for one grade a year, which would mean full integration would have taken 13 years. A school board-appointed citizens committee said there should be “no deliberate mixing of races for the purpose of creating an integrated school.” The number of Black students at the time was relatively small; in 1960, just 5.5% of the county’s total population of 340,928 was Black.
Ultimately, the Black schools were either closed or torn down, but not integrated, their teachers transferred to white schools, their Black principals demoted. A new high school that had been built for Blacks in Rockville to maintain the separate-but-equal fiction became the county’s school administration building. In Poolesville, some white parents picketed and kept their kids home for days. Recalled Phyllis Hebron, the lone Black student riding the school bus to Poolesville, “They used to throw chocolate milk at me.” Her white seatmate, the daughter of a woman for whom Phyllis’ mother cleaned house, was called “[N-word] lover” and also doused.
But there was also down-county resistance. In Chevy Chase’s Rollingwood section, white parents voted 176-55 to oppose the transfer to their neighborhood school of 32 Lyttonsville children whose dilapidated two-room Linden School was being demolished. School boundaries would continue to generate controversy for decades. In the mid-1990s, parents at overcrowded Walt Whitman High School bitterly fought the transfer of students to the more ethnically and economically diverse B-CC. There were perceived racial overtones; the proposal was dropped.
The battle would foreshadow recent heated discussions over shifting boundaries to make school populations more diverse in a county still sharply divided.
Racial covenants and redlining restricted Black access to most established and new subdivisions. Chevy Chase covenants that began appearing in the 1920s and 1930s declared that “no part of the land hereby conveyed shall ever be used, occupied by, sold, demised, transferred, conveyed unto, or in trust for, leased, or rented, or given to any negro or negroes, of any person or persons of negro blood or extraction, except that shall not be held to exclude partial occupancy of the premises by domestic servants of the grantee, his heirs and assigns.”
Also excluded were “any person of the Semitic race including Armenians, Jews, Hebrews, Persians, and Syrians.” Jews and Blacks were barred from buying in tony neighborhoods like Kenwood, Mohican Hills and Sumner. In the greater Silver Spring area, 47 subdivisions had racial covenants. Even after the Supreme Court ruled covenants unconstitutional in 1948, they remained on residential deeds and honored in spirit if not in law. Roland Barnes, the Black principal of then new Travilah Elementary School, filed a suit, which he ultimately lost in the Supreme Court, after developers in 1962 refused to sell him a house in the Seven Locks Meadows subdivision.
Most Black residents were confined to small enclaves such as Lyttonsville, which lacked paved roads and indoor plumbing until the 1960s; water came from a spring where Rosemary Hills Elementary School now stands or from a spigot on Brookville Road, for which users paid the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) $50 a year. “We had outhouses and pumps, and not everybody had a phone,” Pat Tyson recalled in a 2002 interview. “The streets were dirt roads with no street lights, and it was just gravel and dirt.” North Woodside, across the Talbot Avenue railroad bridge from Lyttonsville, was off-limits to Blacks; they could live there only as domestics. “For the purpose of sanitation and health,” a 1923 deed read, “the buyers shall not sell or lease said land to anyone of the race whose death rate is higher than that of the white race.”
Developer E. Brooke Lee, celebrated as the father of modern Silver Spring and even today by the WSSC on its website as “an esteemed Montgomery County politician,” saw open housing as a threat. “Since law-enforced opening of homes and home communities is only aimed at White owned homes and White occupied communities,” he wrote in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Advertiser in March 1967, “the law-enforced open housing statutes are Anti-White laws.”
As a white resident of Silver Spring said in 1967 to Judith Viorst, then writing for Washingtonian magazine, “It’s nice; there’s no colored here.”
The legacy of slavery is barely buried beneath the soil of Montgomery County. Magruder family farmland, worked by 23 slaves, would become the upscale Montgomery Mall. A 600-acre farm with 100 slaves held by the Peter family now encompasses Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and the National Institutes of Health. The plantation of Greenbury Watkins, with 33 slaves, 13 under the age of 10, would become the Columbia Country Club.
Meanwhile, a battle has been raging over Black remains said to be buried in the River Road Moses Cemetery under a parking lot and adjacent land slated for storage units. A grassroots group has collected soil from the site of George Peck’s 1880 lynching in Poolesville and plans another such exercise in September in Rockville for the two other lynching victims. The soil is to be displayed at the National Lynching Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, along with similar collections from other lynching sites.
The county, once almost exclusively Black and white, is today a multicultural mix of more than 1 million residents, with a large immigrant population. Whites make up 43% of the population; the county estimates that figure will decline to 27% by 2045. Racial tensions remain. County high schools have been dealing with overt and more subtle acts of racism. Blacks were seven times more likely to be subjected to traffic stops than whites in Bethesda, according to 2019 statistics. Says at-large Councilmember Will Jawando, the son of a white mother from Kansas and a Black father from Nigeria, “I’ve been pulled over many, many times.”
But there have been some hopeful signs. Several hundred persons, many white, marched from Rockville down Rockville Pike in a Black Lives Matter protest in June. Then, some 6,100 signed a petition urging the schools to incorporate “anti-racist” studies in the curriculum. More than 90 protests were held in the county after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The school board was considering renaming six schools whose namesakes were slaveholders or otherwise complicit in racial discrimination, including Col. E. Brooke Lee Middle School in Silver Spring, which has a student population that is 86% Black or Hispanic. (The board voted in November to change that school’s name to Odessa Shannon Middle School to honor the first Black woman elected to a policy-making political position in Montgomery County.) The county council has declared racism a public health crisis and decreed that all future spending be vetted for racial equity.
The council has also created a Remembrance and Reconciliation Commission and asked for a study of all streets in the county named for Confederates or slaveholding families—a daunting task as one drives on Veirs Mill Road or Muncaster Mill Road, Dufief Mill Road, Tschiffely Square Road and Tschiffely Mill Road, Chiswell Lane, Elgin Road, and Clagett Drive, Clagett Farm Drive, Clagett Pine Way, Clagett Road, Clagett Crossing Mews or Clagett Crossing Place, even Wootton Parkway or Wootton Avenue—named for families that owned slaves or fought for the South. Confederate memorials and monuments have been defaced and toppled, from Silver Spring to White’s Ferry.
The reckoning has not eluded the Monocacy Cemetery board, whose members have donated all Confederate artifacts—the flag, the portraits of Lee and Jackson, the “Lest We Forget” sign—to the county historical society. The tablet naming the Confederate soldiers will remain covered indefinitely.
“I’ve listened to people offended by us having those kinds of things in the cemetery, in the county, in their visual face all the time,” says Mary Elgin Conlon, a cemetery board member whose grandmother was in the United Daughters of the Confederacy and whose great-grandfather was a Confederate soldier. “We were trying to be sensitive to that. We are not trying to change history.”
Says Cherri Branson, a vice president of the Montgomery County branch of the NAACP who briefly served on the county council and before that as chief counsel for oversight on the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security, “The county has a long and really nuanced history.” It is a history that cannot be erased.
Eugene L. Meyer, a former Washington Post reporter and editor, is a contributing editor for Bethesda Magazine and the author of Five for Freedom: The African American Soldiers in John Brown’s Army. He lives in Silver Spring.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated to reflect that Roland Barnes lost his suit in the Supreme Court, and that the school board voted to change the name of Col. E. Brooke Lee Middle School.