More Local Black History: “A Tale of Two Groves”

In 1969, my family moved to the town of Washington Grove, a historic town tucked away between Old Town Gaithersburg and Shady Grove Road, on the East side of the railroad tracks, which to this day has its own mayor and town council.  Growing up there, it didn’t take long to learn the proud history of our town: a group of Methodists working in DC bought the land as a retreat center in the 1870s after the Metropolitan Branch of the B&O railroad was laid.  Every summer, Methodists would take the train out and congregate for weeks at a time staying in tents for summer revivals and lecture series.  Soon more and more came and they stayed longer and longer, so much so that some built cottages to replace the tents.  It wasn’t long before a small town grew up with year-round residents.  Many of the original homes with distinct Carpenter-Gothic architecture remain today.

That was in the early 1900s but the same town spirit, close-knit community, and plethora of social clubs and activities continued and was in place when we arrived in the late ‘60s.  I remember walking across the town park to a town hall where we would hold concerts, plays, and the like.  The Methodist Church sat right in the middle of the town, reminding us of the religious heritage.  It was safe, everyone was friendly, and to this day I still play each year in the town band on the 4th of July.

The very next enclave down Washington Grove Lane from us is a place called Emory Grove.  Growing up, I knew it as the place where Black children lived.  The schools had been integrated so many of them were my classmates at Washington Grove Elementary School.  But Emory Grove was very different: it was a series of rows of townhouses and apartments and lacked the charm and warmth of Washington Grove.  Yes, there was a park and a church but no sense of a town when you entered, just streets and multiple-unit buildings.  The fact that it too was called “Grove” was lost on me as I saw no connection whatsoever to my town other than proximity.

It wasn’t until years later that I discovered the history of Emory Grove.  After the Civil War, many ex-slaves in Montgomery County started to make independent lives for themselves.  Several who had worked on farms around Gaithersburg, Laytonsville, and Derwood bought small parcels of land in this area to farm for about $60 per acre.  Faith was central to these families so soon money was pooled to build a church.  In 1874, a small log edifice was constructed and soon became the social center of the burgeoning community.  Like their neighbors down the road, Emory Grove had its camp meetings of both religious and educational varieties.  A small, one-room school house a block away from the church was added, replaced later on by the larger brick building still in use today on route 124 (which housed South Lake ES during its construction).  Stores, baseball teams, and social halls popped up over the course of the 20th century as the town continued to grow.  I still remember the Du-Drop Inn on Emory Grove Road, built in 1947.

As I read this history, I thought, wait! What happened to this wonderful town that seemed to be just like my own home town of Washington Grove?  Why did it have such a similar history right next to ours and turn out so differently?  Why was Washington Grove still a close-knit flourishing ‘town in a forest’ while Emory Grove was just apartment buildings?

I’ll let a historian explain:

“[After World War II] while growth provided increased job opportunities, it also increased the pressure of development.  Emory Grove residents formed a citizens association to deal with these pressures and to solve some of their problems. There were no sewers, most homes did not have water, the roads were narrow, they rutted when it rained and were all but impassible when it snowed.  So, when the Montgomery County Department of Community Development selected Emory Grove for the county ‘s first conservation and rehabilitation project, residents of Emory Grove looked forward with great anticipation to better living conditions.  However, the urban renewal project turned out, in the eyes of many, to be a disaster.  In all, 105 homes, 63 deemed ‘dilapidated’ and 27 ‘deteriorated’, were destroyed. The community ‘s only grocery store and Johnson’s Tavern were also demolished.  Only 19 homes were spared.  Obviously, residents had to relocate while new homes were being built.  When new homes were finally available, much later than originally planned and at a higher cost, few of the natives of Emory Grove returned to the community.  Today Emory Grove is a racially mixed community of more than 350 subsidized and public housing units. Only Emory Grove United Methodist Church stands as a reminder of the black community that once was.” (from “Emory Grove: A Black Community of Yesteryear” in The Montgomery County Story, published by the Montgomery County Historical Society, vol. 31, February 1988, Mary Charlotte Crook, ed.)

Every time I return to Washington Grove, time stops, fond memories bloom, and I enjoy the sanctuary of an old-fashioned classic American small town to which I still belong.

My African-American classmates return to, uh, church.  That’s all that’s left of the town.

And that’s one difference of growing up white in Montgomery County.

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