GERMANTOWN — Around 200 people came to the Germantown campus of Montgomery College Saturday to learn about different eras of the history of Montgomery County. The 12th Montgomery History Conference, an annual event hosted by the Montgomery County Historical Society, featured presentations and discussions on a variety of topics related to the county’s history.
The conference began with a general session entitled “The Envisioning of Metro: An Enduring Design with Transformational Impacts.” Charlie Scott, Government Relations Officer for the Washington Metropolitan Transportation Authority (WMATA), discussed the public transit system’s formative years.
In the mid-1960s, the National Capital Transit Agency, the forerunner of WMATA, first advanced the initial proposal for a 25-mile, 25-station subway line. Architect Harry Weese was commissioned to design the system and toured European cities to research public transit. He took the name “Metro” from the famed Paris Metro subway.
Several of Weese’s initial proposals were ultimately rejected, such as having bare rock visible in some Metro stations. Scott showed several photographs of Metro stations under construction in the 1970s and 1980s and discussed contemporary efforts to improve service and satisfaction, such as the SafeTrack campaign, the installation of new rail cars, and, last week, implementing a program which automatically refunds the cost of a rush hour trip delayed more than 15 minutes. After his talk, Scott took questions from the audience.
“Why has there been an inability to forward plan the Metro system beyond its original conception, with the exception of the Silver line?” asked attendee John Carpenter. “The region has not stopped growing, building has continued to increase in density, and yet there’s really been no planning that wasn’t done 30 or 50 years ago.”
“The region decided to build a 103-mile system,” Scott answered. “It’s a challenge of funding…extensions have to be funded by the host jurisdictions. From a different standpoint, there’s only so far you can go. With these trains going out to the suburbs, they’d get too full before they reached the end of the line.”
After the general session, attendees had the opportunity to attend several different breakout sessions.
Montgomery College anthropology professor Maria Sprehn-Malagon was joined by two of her student research assistants, Nance Mousa and Lexie Werner, as the three presented their talk, “A World Away: Postwar Migration to Montgomery County, 1945-1965.”
Through statistical and archival research and personal interviews with numerous immigrant residents and their descendants, they provided an account of Montgomery County’s growth from a relatively homogeneous and rural area to one of the most diverse areas in the country. Sprehn-Malagon noted that 32 percent of the County’s current population is foreign-born and that four of the 10 most diverse cities or areas in America are located in the County.
Sprehn-Malagon said that immigration policies in the aftermath of the war favored those coming from northern and western Europe, and that immigrants often faced discrimination upon arrival in the U.S. She showed an ad published in a 1960 issue of The Washington Post seeking “White or Oriental waitresses” for a new Chinese restaurant.
Mousa discussed her research into petitions for naturalization in the postwar period.
“Petitions show that among the many migrants from England, Germany and Canada who sought U.S. citizenship, there were also people like Duane and Emma Wang from China, a man from Trinidad, some from Israel, Cuba, Mexico, Japan and the Phillipines,” Mousa said. “Migrants made the Metropolitan area and the County their home and likely did become citizens. They lived mostly in Silver Spring, Bethesda, Takoma Park, Chevy Chase, Rockville and Kensington. This was probably because of the proximity to D.C. and also where the streetcars were running and also the bus routes that made transportation easier.”
Mousa played an audio clip of her interview with Anita Terauds, a Latvian immigrant who recalled boarding a ship with her family in Germany in the closing days of the Second World War. Mousa said that because of the volatile nature of the Latvian government during the period (the country was dominated at various points by German and Soviet forces) many Latvian immigrants were listed as “stateless” on their citizenship petitions.
Werner discussed the history of Yiddish speakers in Montgomery County. Jewish immigrants had been settling in the D.C. area as far back as 1878 and many of them relocated to the County in the postwar period.
“In the early 1900s, there remained intact racially-restrictive covenants for housing for both African-American and Jews alike. As these were lifted, those who had been previously bound to their existing, racially-concentrated neighborhood were given greater freedom to move about the area. Montogmery County already had a foundation of Jewish community and the newcomers from D.C. added to the flourishing area.”
Werner briefly discussed the plight of Sam Eig, the Russian-born immigrant whose company was responsible for developing much of Silver Spring and other projects. Eig was told by other developers to “Keep the area Christian.”
“When he was told by another developer that he would be unable to sell houses that he would have to sell a community with schools and churches, Sam Eig thought, ‘Well, I can sell churches,’ and proceeded to spend the next several years investing in the foundation of local synagogues,” Werner said.
Dr. Cheryl LaRoche, a professor of American Studies at University of Maryland, College Park, delivered a talk on “The Geography of Resistance: Free Black Communities in the Underground Railroad.” She said she hoped to illuminate the role that free black communities had played in helping fugitive slaves escape to freedom.
“When you think of the Underground Railroad, you probably think of kind-hearted Quakers taking in shivering slaves,” Laroche said. She said that because of a lack of documentation, the role of free blacks on the Underground railroad had likely been underreported.
She showed a map of Underground Railroad routes through Indiana recorded by the turn-of-the-century historian Wilbur Henry Siebert. She then showed a map of contemporaneous African-American churches in the state and noted that they were nearly all on or near Siebert’s routes. She called for fresh thinking on the topic.
“One of the things in the 21st century that I’m advocating are those dreaded words, ‘Let’s speculate,’” LaRoche said. “Let’s hypothesize, let’s think about these things in a whole new way.”
Other topics included discussions of future Supreme Court Thurgood Marshall’s efforts to secure equal pay for African-American teachers in Montgomery County in 1937, and the effects of the “Spanish Flu” Pandemic in the county in 1918.
“I hope that people who come today will understand that history is relevant to their daily lives,” said Matt Logan, executive director of the Montgomery County Historical Society. “It will help them make hopefully more informed decisions when they vote. I hope that it will inspire some of the public officials who are here to make better policy. If we have a better understanding of what Montgomery County used to be like, it will help us as we go forward into the future.”