[What follows is thanks to David Rotenstein, a historian in Silver Spring, Maryland who uses his skill and knowledge to challenge establishment orthodoxies that seek to present versions of the past that render certain experiences, people and places invisible. See more of David’s work here.]
The selective preservation and erasure of memory is universal and timeless. It’s the essence of history. But nowhere is it more true than the USA. I sometimes think the foundation myth of European ‘America’ spread across the virtual genocide of Native Indians is the biggest cover-up in history. But like other societies, America continues to tell itself sanitised stories that foreground ‘official’ histories without acknowledging that they’re contested.
This issue is very current in the context of attitudes to relics of the civil war. A debate is raging in the US about whether statues celebrating the Confederate South should stay or go. The mayor of Richmond, Virginia (the capital of the Confederacy during the civil war) recently said of monuments like the one in his city to Jefferson Davis (who was president of the Confederacy):
“Equal part myth and deception, they were the ‘alternative facts’ of their time – a false narrative etched in stone and bronze more than 100 years ago – not only to lionise the architects and defenders of slavery, but to perpetuate the tyranny and terror of Jim Crow and reassert a new era of white supremacy.” (Mayor Levar Stoney, DC Express, 23rd June 2017)
But there are many mundane distortions of the past that are perhaps more ideologically powerful and pernicious than statues. David Rotenstein showed me some of them during a “dirty tour” of his home town, Silver Spring in Maryland, just north of Washington DC.
The strange social geography of DC makes any definition of place contentious. This city-state imposes itself on the local landscape with a rigidity under-written by Federal law. By most standards, Silver Spring would be just another suburb. But its history makes it more than that and presents a microcosm of the American experience.
The first thing David showed me was this mural, decorating the side of a multi-storey (no pun intended) car park.
We’ve all become used to anodyne municipal and corporate art deployed to dress-up reinventions of place. I still get infuriated by the artifacts (cranes, winding gear, random chain links) littering London’s ‘Docklands’ in a fake gesture to historic preservation. But this mural is more provocative. The clear message is the equality of the two sides in the civil war.
Post-conflict expressions of peace and reconciliation are natural, particularly after civil war and all wars are messy and complex. But in this mural there’s no way of knowing that one side was fighting for the preservation of legal human slavery.
David showed me several other examples of Silver Spring’s attempts to depict its past in a way that conceals some facts and concocts others. In an adjoining mural, black people are shown catching commuter trains in the 1950s at a time when, David says, they would not have been allowed to use the station unless they were working there. Silver Spring remained segregated by custom and practice until the early 1960s, significantly later than DC. More African-Americans moved to the area around this time when a government office opened there, but they not only found it hard to buy a home due to racist restrictions, they couldn’t even buy lunch. David took me to the site of a diner that refused blacks service until they organised the type of sit-in protests more commonly associated with the Deep South. The diner’s demolished now, but the Silver Spring authorities chose not to mark its significant place in local civil rights struggles. What it does commemorate is the figure of Francis Preston Blair, a former slave owner who ‘discovered’ (like Columbus discovered America) the silver spring from which the city takes its name (see photo below).
African-Americans, both free and enslaved, had been living in the Silver Spring area for generations, particularly in the settlement of Lyttonsville. As my book describes, the history of US housing is entwined with racism, so it’s no surprise to learn that Lyttonsville didn’t get running water and paved streets until the late 1960s – and only after a fight.
Today, Lyttonsville has been absorbed into the wider Silver Spring conurbation, but the difficulties for US society in reconciling its present with its past don’t end there. The Talbot Avenue Bridge links Lyttonsville to downtown Silver Spring. It’s an elegant structure that’s typically American.
Now the authorities want to demolish it (allegedly to make way for a new train line). The contrived arguments being used to justify this – poor maintenance, structurally unsound, beyond economic repair – are precisely those used to justify the destruction of US public housing and UK council housing. They all illustrate an enduring disrespect for the homes, histories and lives of working class communities, with ethnicity a potent additional factor.
In the Age of Trump, demolishing bridges and building walls (actual or metaphoric) assume ever greater significance.