Strolling Through Glenmont: Race and Class in 1950's America
By Bob Simpson at Mar 10, 2008
I was born in Washington DC and was a baby and toddler at 13th and Clifton NW in the Shaw neighborhood. We eventually moved out of inner city DC into the working class Glenmont area of suburban Maryland. I stayed there from 1951-1961. In the summer of 2005, I walked through my old neighborhood with Estelle Carol to see how it was doing.
My partner Estelle Carol and I emerged from the cool semi-darkness of the Glenmont, Maryland Metro station into the blazing August sun. Glenmont sure looked different from the newly bulldozed subdivision that had been cut out of the rolling hills of the Piedmont in the early 1950's. Back then, Georgia Avenue was a two lane country road narrow enough that I could bomb commuter cars with pine cones from a tree limb that stretched over the southbound lane from the adjacent Denley farm.
Georgia Ave was now a busy multi-lane highway, although I noted with satisfaction that the grove of trees that had grown on the old Denley farm was still standing across the highway. Intent commuters were striding past Estelle and I as I tried to get my bearings in a place that had once been very familiar with me.
The Metro commuters were dividing into two groups though. Most of the white commuters were getting into their late-model cars and SUV's and heading north to more distant suburban realms. Most of the darker skinned commuters were waiting for the traffic light to change so they could cross Georgia Avenue and walk to their homes across the busy highway..
I couldn't help but nudging Estelle and pointing out with some pride that the working class still owned Glenmont after all these years.
Back in the early 1950's, our section of Glenmont that stretched along Weller Road was a segregated white working class enclave, in keeping with Maryland's troubled racial heritage. I was 5 years old when I first peered out the window to see the blinking red light at the top of the Glenmont water tower.
Weller Road was still mud and from what I remember, we were just about the first people to move on to the block that intersected Georgia Ave. There was a farm field behind us that was to provide my friends and I with endless supplies of stolen grapes and raw corn and a farm across Georgia Ave where my mom would buy fresh eggs right from the chickens.
Our part of Glenmont (called Glenmont Hills) was built on the foundations of New Deal thinking. My dad went to college on the GI Bill so he could afford to take his family out of inner city Washington DC. Our little house on Weller Road was financed by low interest veteran's loans. Weller Road Elementary School received federal impact aid because of the large number of government workers in the area (including my dad who worked for the Veterans Administration).
As a kid I grew up in a government subsidized world when white working class America was about to see its greatest economic boom. The bulldozers of America were turning woods and fields into cheap subsidized housing for the generation who had survived Depression and WWII. Us kids were to be its beneficiaries even as we watched our favorite creeks and woodlands disappear into sprawling subdivisions.
But of course, whites benefited from these New Deal-style programs far more than anyone else. Many college and universities were still segregated or if not formally segregated, they could be hostile environments for people of color. Housing was still very segregated and the new working class subdivisions like Glenmont Hills or the more famous Levittown were no exception.
Estelle and I crossed Georgia Ave and walked down Denley Road to Flack Street and then north toward Weller Road. The tiny little brick bungalows that lined the streets were never architectural masterpieces, but boy, they had been built to last. In fact the neighborhood looked a lot better than when I lived there.
The original developers (the Gelman Corporation) had knocked down most of the trees so the place could get stifling hot with little natural shade. But now the streets were tree shaded. The houses had gardens, bushes and unique decorative elements that you just didn't see when the neighborhood was new.
When we arrived at Weller Road, I took a long look at the house at 2902 where I had lived from 1951-1961. It looked a lot smaller than I remembered, but the successive owners had done a nice job of maintaining it and making useful additions. After snapping a few photos, we turned up Weller Road and headed for Weller Road Elementary School.
I have to say that Weller Road Elementary School in the 1950's was not a great experience for me. I had a couple of fine teachers, especially Mrs. Godfrey who taught us her native West Virginia mountain songs and helped instill in me a lifelong love of reading. The librarians there had encouraged me to visit them and led me to new worlds of wonder through science, history, biography and science fiction books. But mostly I remember the fights, the vandalism, the bullying and the generally anti-intellectual atmosphere of the place.
I was a discipline problem for a variety of reasons, so the school thought they could mold me into a good citizen by making me a safety patrol. After a series of fights and various scrapes with the school authorities, Montgomery County Police Sgt. DeVries personally kicked me off the safety patrols and took back my white patrol belt that I had worked so hard to keep white and clean. I was also one of the leaders of a student protest against our incompetent 5th grade teacher, which did not endear me to the principal, but eventually led to the firing of the teacher.
Weller Road Elementary today has a majority Black and Hispanic school population. White students make up a minority of its student body. Looking at the school on a hot summer day in 2005, I wondered if they were doing a better job than when I was there. The Weller Road Elementary web site projects the image of a caring multicultural learning environment. I hope the reality comes close to the optimistic image.
We turned away from Weller Road Elementary and headed toward nearby Wheaton High School where I had participated in the local YMCA football, basketball and baseball programs. As we approached the school, three young Hispanic men came toward us with menacing-looking shaved heads and streetwise scowls that were directed not at us, but at the world in general. They sauntered past us as if we did not exist.
It was all I could do not to bust out laughing. Back in my youth, they would have been three surly looking white guys with greasy Elvis Presley ducktail haircuts, black leather jackets and tight jeans that looked like they had been sprayed on. Teenagers in Glenmont used to sit for hours soaking in bathtubs of hot soapy water to shrink their Levis as dramatically as possible.
At Wheaton High School I stood in front of the entrance and posed for a picture with my fist in a socialist salute. At the age of 5, I had performed my first political act there, handing out leaflets for Adlai Stevenson on the 1952 election day as my parents did work for the local Democratic Party. A passerby told me I shouldn't be supporting Stevenson because Adlai was against the H-Bomb. I didn't know what an H-Bomb was, but if Adlai didn't like it, it had to be something bad.
Later in the 1950's when I went to the Wheaton High School football games, the place would be surrounded with souped up '55 Chevies and various breeds of hot rod, all driven by guys who looked like they had just escaped from "Rebel Without a Cause" or "Blackboard Jungle", two popular movies of the time about angry alienated teenagers.
It was common "knowledge" among us grade schoolers that the black leather jackets of the guys supposedly concealed such weapons as switchblade knives and zipguns. The beehive hairstyles of the girls supposedly hid sharpened beercan openers (called "churchkeys" by the cognescenti).
We heard dark rumors of "rumbles" at the local teen hangouts. How much of this was actually true? I don't really know for sure, but in my year at Belt Junior High, gangs of black leather jacketed kids would circle around vicious after-school fights while subsidiary fights broke out among spectators.
I gave those Glenmont gladiatorial games a wide berth.
We turned down Dalewood Drive toward the small woodlot and creek that ran past the Wheaton Recreation Center. Ahead of us two Black girls and a long haired blonde were headed in the same direction with swimsuits and towels. As a kid I had helped built dams to create swimming holes in the creek, but I couldn't believe kids still did that today. The mystery of the three Glenmont girls would be solved later in our excursion.
The creek began at a storm drain and ended at another storm drain a couple of blocks downstream, but it was our little Grand Canyon. It contained a wildlife population of water striders, whirlagig beetles, tadpoles and a few minnows. The dams we built created pools deep enough to swim a few strokes. Then we would break the dams to unleash a torrent of flood waters on any unsuspecting creatures further down. I learned quite a bit about hydrological engineering there.
The creek in 2005 was a bitter disappointment----totally overgrown with kudzu. You could barely see the water. I had read about kudzu as a budding grade school junior ecologist. It had been introduced into the Deep South for erosion control and had reproduced like cockroaches in a 100 year old tenement.
But what the hell was it doing in Maryland? Ah, global warming, of course. Thanks to ignorance and greed, the kids of Glenmont were being deprived of their own free natural neighborhood water park. What a goddamned shame in this age of "nature deficit disorder."
As we walked down toward the bridge that leads to the rec center building we heard shouts, cheers and whistles. The mystery of the 3 Glenmont girls was solved. In place of the tennis courts, the Montgomery County Recreation Department had built a community pool.
We walked up to the high fence surrounding the pool and peered inside. People of all shapes, colors and ages were splashing merrily about or relaxing with chips and soda pop.
I had once carried a towel, swim trunks and a quarter to the rec center to get bused to the Glen Echo Amusement Park pool. It was really an ancestor of today's water parks with its towering water slide and bubbling fountains. I loved the place.
Glen Echo Amusement Park was also segregated. If the three Glenmont girls we had seen earlier had tried to enter, only the blonde would have been admitted. The Civil Rights Movement eventually desegregated Glen Echo, but the place closed down soon afterwards. Rumor had it that the local white residents didn't want Blacks coming to "their" neighborhood to ride the roller coasters, eat cotton candy and swim in the pool.
Glen Echo today is a National Park Service operated arts and cultural center. If you visit Glen Echo, you can ride the restored version of the original Glen Echo carousel and get on board a piece of our Jim Crow history.
I'd seen enough. It was a long hot walk back up Randolph Road to the cool interior of the Glenmont Metro station.
Glenmont had lost some of its woods and fields to suburban sprawl and that saddened me. But the sight of the pool almost made up for that loss. In the Glenmont of the 1950's vicious racism was just part of the landscape. I had never been comfortable with that kind of bigotry and had secretly cheered on the Civil Rights Movement as it fought to overcome it. But like most kids, I wanted to fit in. So I laughed (weakly) at the steady stream of racist jokes and tried not to wince when I heard the term "nigger"---- which was often.
21st century Glenmont is a multiracial working class neighborhood----at least for now. That was the sort of dream I pursued when I joined up with Martin Luther King's Poor Peoples' Campaign and the Black Panther Party's rainbow coalition efforts. Glenmont's resegregation is always possible, but I don't think it will ever go back to the Jim Crow days I remember.
I wish today's residents of Glenmont well. Hold on to the dream. If America is to have a future, you hold some of the keys to it.