Historians Neil Flanagan and Kimberly Bender have shared a recording of their Feb. 24 Zoom presentation about how a Black housing development in what is now Friendship Heights was scuttled by white developers. The pre-recorded portion of the event followed by a live Q&A is now posted on YouTube here.
The program, sponsored by DC Archives Advocates, represents several years of intense research in numerous archives. It focuses on how parking lots around Saks Fifth Avenue and the neighboring storefronts between Friendship Heights and Chevy Chase conceal a story of ambition and injustice. In 1906, when streetcar suburbs were still a novel luxury and the ambition of Reconstruction had not completely been put down, four Black businessmen secretly acquired that land, with plans to create exclusive suburb – only unlike all other developments in the area, it would be open to African Americans.
Once in their hands, the four men who called themselves the Belmont Syndicate proudly advertised the choice properties in both Black and white area newspapers. They sold lots to a cross-section of Black Washingtonians, from janitors to esteemed ministers and even single professional women. When white neighbors learned of the plan, they threatened violence in the papers, tried to buy off the developers, and had the salesman arrested on flimsy charges.
However, what ultimately did Belmont in was more subtle. The previous owner of the property, the Chevy Chase Land Company had written backstop conditions into the deeds used to convey and finance the land. In a preview of how nominally race-neutral legal tools would be used to exclude large sections of the public from suburbs over the next century, they forced the Belmont Syndicate into foreclosure and buried as much evidence as they could.
Yet, records of the litigation survive in archives. With these documents and historic newspapers, we have been able to reconstruct the bold vision of these four men. Far from the rumor that Belmont was supposed to be a “servants’ village,” it was instead a late product from a mindset of equality and excellence formed in Reconstruction. These men may have been the first African Americans to try to shape the suburbs, and also some of the first to learn they were not welcome.
About the Speakers:
Kimberly Bender is the founding Executive Director the Heurich House Museum. From 2011-2013, she presented a monthly local history radio feature on WAMU. Currently, her main research focuses on Myrtilla Miner, a white woman who created an antebellum school for free Black women that later evolved into Miner Teacher’s College and eventually the University of the District of Columbia.
Neil Flanagan is a practicing architectural designer who has written about history since 2008. Raised in Tenleytown, he has been researching the history of urban planning and is writing a book about the destroyed African American community of Reno and the transformation of Washington, DC in the 1920s.
DC Archives Advocates is a group of archivists, historians, and citizens interested in securing the future of the District of Columbia Archives and Office of Public Records, the largest DC history collection.