KENSINGTON – More than a hundred area residents came to Kensington Park Library on Feb. 16 to share stories and learn more about the history of Ken-Gar, a predominantly African American neighborhood in northern Kensington. The nonprofit historical society Heritage Montgomery sponsored the event.
Karen Jackson, a longtime resident of Ken-Gar and the daughter of Leonard D. Jackson, a prominent community activist in the neighborhood, discussed its founding and growth.
Jackson began her remarks by addressing a common misconception that former slaves founded Ken-Gar. Henry N. Cobb, a prominent landowner, established the neighborhood in 1892.
Its name is a combination of Kensington and Garrett Park, the two municipalities which it borders.
“The African Americans who came and purchased homes in Ken-Gar were actually people who had worked in the Kensington area as domestics,” Jackson said. “They are the ones who really established Ken-Gar and made it what it is.”
Ken-Gar received a Rosenwald school, one of many schools for African American children in the Southern United States financed by the partnership of Sears Roebuck executive Julius Rosenwald and the educator Booker T. Washington. Jackson said that members of Lee African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first church to be established in Ken-Gar, were instrumental in convincing Montgomery County Public Schools to support the project, as children in Ken-Gar had to ride the bus for nearly an hour-and-a half to reach George Washington Carver High School in Maryland, which African American students attended prior to desegregation in Montgomery County.
Jackson recalled that she and other residents received assistance from local organizations during her childhood years. The nonprofit MobileMed provided medical care to underinsured residents, and volunteers from 4-H came to Ken-Gar to teach students how to raise chickens and other livestock.
“We had a lot of interesting times and things to do in Ken-Gar, and our lives were centered there, and I think because of that, I never realized I was poor,” Jackson said.
Jackson discussed the sense of community Ken-Gar residents felt, which often revolved around the Ken-Gar Community center, the only community-run community center in Montgomery County until it was acquired by the county’s Department of Parks and Recreation in 2014. After its acquisition, the community center was renamed in honor of Jackson’s father, Leonard, who co-founded the Ken-Gar Civic Association in 1959 and served as its president for over 20 years.
Leonard D. Jackson was inducted into the Montgomery County Human Rights Hall of Fame in 2002.
Jackson recalled the “one bad thing” that happened during her youth in Ken-Gar. In 1972, three white teenage boys drove into Ken-Gar and harassed local residents by throwing firecrackers at some young men on the sidewalk. The intruders did not realize that the only way out of the neighborhood was the way in, and when they turned the car around, the men they had attacked were blocking the path. One boy fled on foot, another was fatally shot, and the third was badly beaten.
“That was a stigma on Ken-Gar for many, many years,” Jackson said. “We would hear ‘Oh, you’re from Ken-Gar; you’re a bad person.’ Ken-Gar wasn’t bad; this was something that just happened.”
The acclaimed crime writer George Pelecanos treated this incident in his 2008 book “The Turnaround.”
Other area residents shared their memories of Ken-Gar.
“I remember getting to meet the young boys and girls of the Ken-Gar community,” said Ronald Perrell, who grew up in Kensington. “I grew up playing basketball at the Ken-Gar Community Center. I was one of the young Caucasians invited to play one of the first games when the lights came up. I used to play in Motown bands, and we played at the community youth center. I would play ball with my boys during the day, and they’d see me on stage at night.”
“The young man who was shot and killed, his car ended up in my driveway,” said Mary Dorsey, who lived in Ken-Gar most of her life. “My husband was accused of shooting him, and they raided my house, tore my house apart. The police were really mean to us in Ken-Gar. They assumed that we all were the same and that everybody did wrong.”
Despite that incident, Dorsey said she retains many fond memories of Ken-Gar, where she served as a chaplain for the Civic Association.
“I’m very proud to represent Ken-Gar,” said Delegate Al Carr (D-17) who attended the event. “I was glad to help secure funding for the renovated community center, and glad that it was named after Dr. Jackson, who embodied the great sense of community spirit that lives on in the neighborhood today.”
A choir from Lee’s AME Church performed several Gospel songs. The event was one of several Heritage Montgomery sponsored throughout the county in honor of Black History Month.