A Photograph In Honor of Black History Month

African Americans employed at Greenbelt at work in front of Center School. Lenore Thomas' bas relief is visible in the background. Greenbelt Museum Collection

Greenbelt, Maryland is a planned community built in 1937 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. One of three Green Towns built during the Great Depression, the project put struggling Americans to work, provided much needed low-income housing in the Washington, D.C. region and was a bold experiment in town planning and cooperative living. Its first residents enjoyed modern homes, schools, a pool, a library and a town center complete with cooperative businesses and a movie theater all within walking distance of the homes in a utopian park-like setting.

Those first residents of Greenbelt, however, were exclusively white. Although Greenbelt was integrated in terms of religion, which was unusual for a New Deal Community, it was racially segregated. African American workers such as the ones pictured here importantly helped to build the town, but they were not able to apply for residency here as Greenbelt, Prince Georges County, and the state of Maryland were all racially segregated at the time. Early town plans called for an area to be set aside and called the Rossville Rural Development which was purportedly to be used by African American families, (see The New Deal in the Suburbs: A History of the Greenbelt Town Program 1935-1954, by Joseph Arnold) but the plans were dropped early on as they were too controversial. 

Residents move into Aberdeen Gardens (formerly called Newport News Homesteads), Arthur Rothstein, November 1937. Library of Congress

The federal government did build two other New Deal era communities in the Mid-Atlantic region for African Americans, Langston Terrace  in Washington, D. C. and Aberdeen Gardens outside of Newport News, Virginia.

Greenbelt turns 75 this year and in preparation for an upcoming timeline exhibition, the Greenbelt Museum is actively researching both the African American workers who helped to build Greenbelt and the first families of color who moved into Greenbelt, probably in the late 1960s. If you or anyone you know has any information, recollections, or photographs of African Americans in Greenbelt from the late 1930s on, please contact us at greenbeltmuseum@gmail.com. For more information about 75th Anniversary events, including an anniversary  symposium which will explore diversity in one of its sessions, please visit the City of Greenbelt’s website. Or download the Symposium registration form here.

One thought on “A Photograph In Honor of Black History Month

  1. […] African American workers labored alongside white workers in the construction of  Greenbelt in 1936 and 1937. One can only imagine their frustration at not being able, then, to actually apply for housing here. And to the best of our knowledge, Greenbelt did not begin to become more diverse until the late 1960s and early 1970s.  So we at the Greenbelt Museum believe we absolutely continue to need Black History Month. Privileging the history of African Americans for a month, can not and will not ever begin to address generations’ worth of prejudice, hardship, and so, so much worse,  and in an ideal world, that history should be incorporated into all of the narratives that make up our nation’s history, but hopefully, by raising awareness, and attempting to create a safe space and forum for discussions about race to take place, we here at the Museum can begin to help. To this end, last year, I established an Archive of the African American Experience in Greenbelt to formalize the collection of this part of Greenbelt’s story.  We welcome photos, reminiscences, thoughts and remarks. If you have something to share, please contact us at greenbeltmuseum@gmail.com. For more information about this topic, please see an earlier post here. […]

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