When dozens of people boarded buses at Allen Chapel AME Church in Southeast D.C., they began a trip, not only to Montgomery County, Maryland, but also embarked on a journey back in time. Participating in the Washington Informer’s African American Heritage Tour on Saturday, June 24, allowed for immersive experiences that transported guests from modern times all the way to the late 18th century. Featuring special appearances from innovative historians and local leaders, the tour offered engaging and didactic stories that provided insight to some of the challenges and achievements Montgomery County and Black communities face to this day.
“It’s not lost on us that things like the national anthem, Pledge of Allegiance, ‘liberty and justice,’ and all that stuff – are kind of meaningful for some people, and kind of meaningless for other people,” said Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D), during the tour’s stop at Glen Echo – a place with its own loaded and complicated civil rights history.
With stops at Boyds Negro School, Button Farm Living History Center, Glen Echo and Josiah Henson Museum and Park, the tour allowed guests to appreciate the about 500-square-mile-county and some of its historic gems.
“History, including Black history, is right under our feet. We walk along the paths of those who came before us, yet we don’t know their names or their stories. That is why The Washington Informer and Washington Informer Charities established the annual African American Heritage Tour 11 years ago. It is our way of keeping our history alive,” said Washington Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes.
The tour was sponsored by Bank of America, Pepco, Visit Montgomery, Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation and Safeway Foundation, and coordinated by Juanita Katon of DC in Black.
“I am grateful to the folks at Visit Montgomery, our sponsors, the tour guides and especially those who traveled with us who appreciate teaching, sharing and experiencing Black history and culture,” Rolark Barnes added.
The African American Heritage Tour and its featured guests highlighted Montgomery County’s commitment to historical preservation and the intentional work being done to uplift sights important to Montgomery County and the area’s Black history, communities, challenges and achievements.
Taking a Tour Back in Time
In the more than hour’s time it takes to get from Southeast, D.C. to Boyds Negro School in Germantown, Maryland, it becomes clear that Montgomery County goes far beyond some of the popular cities bordering or near the District, such as Takoma Park, Silver Spring, Bethesda, Chevy Chase and Potomac. Montgomery County is big–with the largest population in the state, packed with diversity, and featuring towns, cities, neighborhoods and rural farmland.
Boyds Negro School
The long ride to the first destination seemed to wrap up as lanes narrowed and the big bus began winding through the very rural roads. The farmland scenery and signs highlighting both the school (1896-1936) and Boyds as a Montgomery County Historic District, helped set the tone for, what proved to be, only the beginning of pseudo-time traveling.
The preserved small school featured old desks, utensils, photos and more, offering attendees a glimpse into what it was like to seek an education as a Black person in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Button Farm Living History Center
After a lesson in the schoolhouse, guests traveled to Button Farm Living History Center where they were schooled by a leading Underground Railroad and Montgomery County historian, and provided an interactive and engaging view into the lives of Black enslaved people.
“Here we strive to create sensory experiences, tastes, touch, smells, sights, and sounds of the past, some of which tie into the story of enslavement, and to use those sensory experiences to inform people of the history that’s really between the lines– the things you’re not going to get in a history book,” said celebrated historian Anthony Cohen, president of the Menare Foundation and creator of the Underground Railroad Immersive Experience (URIE). “Here, we want people interacting.”
With livestock such as chickens, geese, guinea hogs, and infrastructure and agriculture specific to the nineteenth century, Cohen and the people at Button Farm Living History Center create immersive, unforgettable moments for guests.
Passionate about studying, researching and preserving the history of the Underground Railroad, Cohen has braved the elements and more to experience a semblance of the journey necessary for an enslaved person to escape to freedom. In 1997, when media mogul Oprah caught wind of Cohen’s personal journey and research, she wanted to have a similar experience in preparation for her role in “Beloved,” and thus, the URIE was officially born.
Button Farm Living History Center is an extension of decades of Cohen’s immersive research and educational programming.
“We worked with the state of Maryland to acquire this farm on a long term lease. We pay $1 a year to be here and then we’re responsible for raising all the money to restore the buildings, which we’ve done over the past 10 years, and keep the grounds accessible to the public,” Cohen explained.
After seeing and smelling some of the livestock and crops such as tobacco, onion and cotton, it was time to head to Glen Echo Amusement Park.
“The story of this place was a story that was born in exclusion, but also emerged a revolution,” said Montgomery County Councilmember Andrew Friedson (D- District 1).
A segregated Glen Echo would become a place for protest and catalyst for change. The amusement park was forcefully integrated in 1961.
Sixty-three years ago, Howard University students staged a protest on Glen Echo’s carousel to advocate for integration, and on June 25, people gathered back at the amusement park to commemorate the historic and brave action.
According to Montgomery County Community Media, back in 1960, some white residents served as allies to the cause and purchased tickets for the Howard students so they could ride the carousel and demand justice.
“This was a significant struggle that was occurring in the ‘Summer of Change,’ as it was called in 1960. It was the student-led group at Howard University and allies,” Friedson emphasized.
While at Glen Echo, participants listened to presentations from Elrich, Friedson and other Montgomery County and Washington Informer leaders, before enjoying a delicious, flavorful and filling lunch provided by All Set Restaurant and Bar, that included offerings such as salmon, chicken and a vegetarian pasta.
Adding to the immersive experience, guests were given a pass to ride the same carousel that catapulted action at the park 63 years ago.
Josiah Henson Museum and Park
The day of history and fun wrapped at Josiah Henson Museum and Park in Bethesda, Maryland.
Born in Maryland in 1789, Henson was once celebratorily hailed as the “real Uncle Tom.” However, his heroic story of resilience, bravery and leadership has been tarnished by racist, revisionist history that painted him as a negative, disloyal, betrayer to his people.
“Our Museum sits on about four acres of the 560-acre plantation that existed right where you’re sitting today,” a tour guide from the Josiah Henson Museum and Park told the guests. “Five-hundred-sixty acres translates to about 423 football fields. All that land was land that was overseen by Josiah Henson, who was once a slave himself, and was once exchanged just for the fee of putting horseshoes on a horse.”
Henson went on to escape slavery, before helping 118 enslaved people flee to freedom, becoming a Methodist pastor in Canada, and being renowned as the person on whom Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1852) is based.
Montgomery County’s Work Towards Justice and Equity
County Executive Elrich, who also served on the County Council for 12 years and Takoma Park City Council from 1987-2006, said Montgomery County is being “purposeful,” in acknowledging its history of injustices, and celebrating centuries of local equal rights heroes and movements.
Elrich talked about the vast farmland throughout the county still tainted with the stain of the dark truth of enslaving, dehumanizing and mistreating African Americans. Post slavery and Reconstruction, Montgomery County wondered what to do with some of the area’s plantations.
“By the 20th century they started thinking ‘How are we going to repurpose this? And started putting in the first subdivisions, and the first subdivisions all had racial covenants… Most properties banned ownership or rental to Blacks and Jews, and occasionally, they threw in Catholics,” Elrich said. “So this county, and the Civil Rights pioneers in this county, started to cut their teeth, fighting for integrating housing, through fair housing laws.”
While Elrich emphasized that Montgomery County is “a much more welcoming place than it used to be,” he also said there’s still more work to be done. Part of the county’s current equity efforts are ensuring that people are informed of the area’s history and encouraging others to continue working towards true freedom and justice for all residents and people.
The African American Heritage Days are just one of many public ways Montgomery County is being intentional about uplifting the history, beauty, diversity and contributions of the county’s Black residents.
This year Montgomery County also celebrated Juneteenth in a major way.
“Part of the work we’re doing on Juneteenth is to make sure we recognize and acknowledge our history [that] has been here,” Elrich said. “Montgomery County has recognized this holiday for the past 26 years, but this is the first time we’ve actually had large scale celebrations all throughout the county for the entire week.”
Part of the County’s continued work is acknowledging all the facets of the area’s history and further working towards equity.
Rolark Barnes emphasized why such historic reminders are important for progress.
“We, as a people, and a nation have come a long way, and we should never forget those who helped to get us here,” Barnes explained. “Their stories remind us that it is now our turn to take the baton to keep us moving forward.”