Uncovering the "Lost Colony" in Bethesda

Uncovering the "Lost Colony" in Bethesda

Near Macedonia Baptist Church, a black community on River Road struggles to reclaim its history

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Harvey Matthews Sr. at Macedonia Baptist Church. Photo by Skip Brown

“I call River Road the ‘lost colony,’ ” says Harvey Matthews Sr. “I lived there, I was raised there, I went to school there, but it’s gone and forgotten. All those whites who live in the surrounding area don’t have any knowledge of the black folks who lived there, and people need to know about that.”

This “lost colony” in Bethesda flourished for almost a hundred years, between Little Falls Parkway and Kenwood, until developers pushed out the last few families in the early 1960s. The only remaining vestige is a small church, Macedonia Baptist, tucked between a towering apartment building and a Bank of America branch. You can drive by it countless times, as I did for years, and never know it’s there.

Sometimes called Crow Hill, the “colony” might have stayed lost except for one thing—a black cemetery that once existed across River Road from the church. It was paved over many years ago, but now the owners of the property along Westbard Avenue want to build a new parking structure on the site. The members of Macedonia Baptist have been up in arms, staging protests, testifying at hearings and attracting TV cameras. They don’t know if any of their own ancestors were buried there, but that’s not the point. Their struggle to recognize and respect the graveyard is, in a sense, a struggle to reclaim their own history. 

Sitting in the church basement, in a fellowship hall named for his aunt and uncle, Matthews says he was raised on a small farm where the Whole Foods Market now stands. “We didn’t have an actual playground to play in, so the cemetery was a popular place,” he recalls. “People like to tell us the cemetery didn’t exist, but I know the cemetery was there. So now I’m hollering foul.”

Members of the church would like the site to be turned into a park or museum, telling the history of the “lost colony,” one that begins after the Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves who worked on nearby plantations. Historian Bill Offutt says “the roots of this community” can probably be traced to those slave families; land records from 1873 reveal the sale of 2-acre plots to two blacks, John Burley and Nelson Wood, for $200 apiece. When Matthews, now 72, was growing up, about 33 black families lived in the area and most owned their land. Two of those families, the Dorseys and the Clippers, are remembered in local street names. 

Land ownership was possible because work was plentiful. Many men toiled in the granite quarries that dotted the area, while others built roads, hauled trash or clerked in stores. The women were maids, nannies and cooks in Kenwood and other white neighborhoods. Matthews’ father drove a sanitation truck and his mother and sister worked at a small grocery and luncheonette that became Talbert’s, a beer and wine store that’s still there today.

The family kept horses and pigs, and Matthews’ father was an expert trainer of hunting dogs. He’d load up his dogs and kerosene lanterns, and at night he’d go hunting for raccoons on open land now occupied by Walt Whitman and Winston Churchill high schools. He’d also trap muskrats in Little Falls creek and sell the hides. Every house had its own garden and as Matthews puts it, “If you lived on River Road, you knew every bean that came out of the ground, because that’s what we ate.”

As a child Harvey attended a “colored school” in Crow Hill, but after desegregation in 1954, he shifted to a white school in Somerset and became the only black player on a local baseball team. After games, he and his teammates would eat at places in downtown Bethesda, like Drug Fair or the Little Tavern, but racial discrimination still infected local businesses.

“I could go into the Little Tavern with my friends,” he recalls, “and they would sit up at the counter with those little stools that spun around and order those teeny burgers, you’d get a bag of them for a dollar.” But the counterman insisted that “that little black boy” had to go outside to eat his food. “That was my first experience with racial differences between a black man and a white man.”

“I always called Bethesda ‘Lily White Bethesda,’ because the only blacks you could find were down River Road,” Matthews says. (Today African-Americans make up 19 percent of Montgomery County but less than 4 percent of Bethesda, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.)

Still, the kids from Crow Hill made regular expeditions to the center of town, using the railroad tracks (now the Capital Crescent Trail) as their route. One favorite stop was a plant on Bethesda Avenue that made Fritos. “The guys who worked there used to give us these big greasy bags” of hot chips, which were usually empty long before the explorers returned to River Road, Matthews says.

Young Harvey was always looking for ways to make extra money: setting pins at a bowling alley (where blacks were allowed to work but not play), cleaning the Bank of Bethesda at night (where his grandfather was a clerk and teller) and caddying at the Kenwood Country Club. After high school he followed his father into sanitation work, became a union official, settled in the Petworth section of Washington, D.C., and raised six children. But he is still angry at what happened to his old neighborhood.

Crow Hill survived two World Wars and a crushing Depression, but there was one foe it could not overcome. Greed. Rev. Olusegun Adebayo, the pastor at Macedonia Baptist, tells me that during the late 1950s unscrupulous buyers would get local men “drunk on cheap liquor” and trick them into signing away their property. “Back then they didn’t have any rights that the white man was bound to respect,” he says. “They were very vulnerable, and one by one they lost their land.”

As the community dissolved, so did the memories. “History has been stolen from us,” says Matthews. “We’re Lily White Bethesda now, but there was a little black community there that nobody knows nothing about.”

Now they do. 

Steve Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. Send ideas for future columns to sroberts@gwu.edu.

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