Oral History Connects a Historic Bridge to People, Race, and History

Author: David S. Rotenstein, historian and folklorist

“Oral history can serve as a dynamic tool for public history,” wrote Samuel Redman in his recent Bridging blog post about the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge Oral History Project. Redman’s article focused on oral history work stemming from a well-loved and widely known bridge. My work with the Talbot Avenue Bridge in Silver Spring, Maryland, represents the opposite end of the spectrum: oral history opened up greater community awareness of a historic bridge.

The Talbot Avenue Bridge, 2018. After the bridge was declared unsafe for vehicular traffic, graffiti appeared on the historic structure reinforcing in a word – “Junk” – how many Montgomery County residents felt about the bridge prior to 2016. Photo by David Rotenstein.

The Talbot Avenue Bridge is a 16-foot wide steel girder bridge that once carried pedestrians and cars over railroad tracks in the Washington, D.C. suburbs. Built in 1918 by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the bridge is slated for demolition in the spring of  2019 to facilitate construction of a new light rail line. Historic preservation evaluations determined that the bridge was historically significant because of its engineering history and associations with the railroad. Social history did not figure into any of the historic preservation studies conducted between 1995 and 2016.

In the summer of 2016 I began doing oral history interviews with residents of a historically-Black neighborhood west of the bridge called Lyttonsville. My first interviews were conducted inside a conference room at the community center named for one of the community’s leading activists, the late Gwendolyn E. Coffield.

During these interviews, narratives emerged about how the Talbot Avenue Bridge provided a vital link connecting Lyttonsville with neighboring Silver Spring and Washington, D.C. Lyttonsville developed in the nineteenth century as an African American hamlet with Black homes, businesses, churches, and a school. Silver Spring was a sundown suburb, a place where racial restrictive covenants and Jim Crow segregation in stores, movie theaters, and restaurants prevented African Americans from living, shopping, and dining there for much of the twentieth century.

Lyttonsville was Silver Spring’s “other side of the tracks.” It’s a powerful trope in American popular culture and a concept that I immediately connected to Lyttonsville’s residents’ bridge narratives. “In those days it was a necessity to go in and out of the community,” Patricia Tyson told me in August 2016. “It was the only way out, I guess. In and out.”

Earlier researchers unfamiliar with Silver Spring’s history as a sundown suburb heard accounts like that and didn’t interrogate why that was an important issue in Lyttonsville. Had they asked more questions about the bridge and its place in a racialized cultural landscape, Tyson and some of the other current and former Lyttonsville residents might have told them about the bridge’s voice.

“We could sit on our porch down on Kansas Avenue and it seemed like you could hear the boards rattling as people came across,” Tyson said. “But it’s now a symbol of history.”

Children in Lyttonsville set their mental clocks by the bridge, listening for the sounds of their parents’ cars and the bridge deck’s distinctive rattle. For adults like Ella Redfield who grew up in Lyttonsville, the bridge was her route to catch a bus to get to work. “I remember walking through the neighborhood,” Redfield recalled in October 2016. “And of course past the house that I grew up in, walking to and crossing that bridge to catch a bus to go downtown to the Department of Treasury where I worked.”

Those oral history accounts that I collected led to posts in my blog about the bridge; articles in The Washington Post and other local media outlets; blog posts by a social justice activist in the United Kingdom; a short documentary video; an instrumental song; and, a pop-up museum.

Talbot Avenue Bridge Centennial Celebration. David Fakunle performs a libation ceremony on the bridge as people attending the festival watch. Photo by David Rotenstein.

With all of the increased awareness, neighbors on both sides of the tracks collaborated on two events in late 2018. The first was a centennial celebration in September 2018 that transformed the bridge, which has been closed to vehicular traffic since early 2017, into a festival space for more than 200 people. The second was a November 2018 lantern walk.  

“We’re hoping that the legacy of the bridge, that there will be a human legacy of the human bridge that it brings,” said North Woodside resident and event planner Anna White at the lantern walk. “And that its legacy is that it brought us together, people on both sides of the bridge.”

County and state government officials have not changed their plans to demolish the bridge, despite all of the community efforts. The only alteration to the mitigation plan (preparation of a history report and additional photographs) developed to comply with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act has been a suggestion to relocate girders from the original bridge structure to a nearby trail.

David Rotenstein is a historian and folklorist based in Silver Spring, Maryland, who writes on gentrification, erasure, and industrial history.

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