TALE OF TAKOMA: African-American history in Takoma Park

IMAGE:  two young black men circa 1890 at the Takoma Park spring, now Spring Park. Photo courtesy Historic Takoma.

TALE OF TAKOMA • BY DIANA KOHN

Among the photographs in Historic Takoma’s archives are tantalizing glimpses of African Americans who have made Takoma Park their home.

Many early residents preferred the clear, cool water of Big Spring (on Elm Avenue) as their drinking water. One photo shows two young black men circa 1890 sitting on the upper platform of the stone shelter over the underground spring. We don’t know their names but they speak to the existence of an early African-American community in Takoma Park, centered on what is now Ritchie and Geneva Avenues.

Another image shows a fashionably dressed young black woman in a studio portrait taken in 1914. May Olive Warren moved to Takoma Park a short time later. She married and raised a family. Her daughter Helen married Lee Jordan, a young man in the neighborhood, who had a passion for sports.

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May Olive Warren. Photo courtesy Historic Takoma.

Jordan arrived here as a young boy with his family in the 1920s, as part of the Great Northern Migration. We have no images of him from his baseball days on the fringes of the DC Negro Baseball circuit. The image we have was taken in 1979 for the Washington Post, shortly before Montgomery County named the middle school athletic field in his honor. His life in the decades between had a profound influence on Takoma Park.

Back in 1937, as janitor at Blair High School, he agreed to supervise a group of white boys who wanted to play basketball after school. Before long he organized a team of black students from his local church to challenge the white teams to informal games. Over time he expanded his coaching to include football and baseball, a full-fledged athletic program that encompassed generations of boys and girls, black and white across the city and domineering force in county sports leagues. He became a familiar face around Takoma, heading for a game in every season with a gang of kids in tow.

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Lee Jordan. Photo courtesy Historic Takoma.

Jordan was also lay pastor at Parker Memorial Baptist Church, which stood on Geneva Avenue. Although we have an image of the original church, before it was rebuilt after a 1977 fire, there is no image of Rev. William Parker, the driving force in the tight-knit community. He spearheaded the funding drive to build the church in 1924. Two years later he prevailed on the Montgomery County School Board to provide funding for a school across from the church.

We have one faded image of students posed outside the white clapboard school. The building, designed and partly funded from Rosenwald Fund monies, did not survive a fire in 1956. By then, fortunately, the school was no longer necessary. The Supreme Court had recently declared in Brown v. Board of Ed that blacks could attend white schools. And Jordan’s daughters along with many of his athletes began the 1955 school season in local white schools.

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Then there are the athletes – Sonny Jackson as a quarterback in the Montgomery Blair yearbook, and a Sports Illustrated cover from his days as a Houston Astros outfielder. Steve Francis, another local boy who made good, this time as a Houston Rocket in the NBA. Dominique Dawes as one of the Magnificent Seven who won gymnastics gold for the U.S. in 1996.

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Dominique Dawes on the cover of a book about her, and Roland Dawes in front of his barbershop. Photo courtesy Historic Takoma.

Dominique’s great-grandparents Alberta and Adolph Dawes, first settled here in 1924 joining family members already in Takoma Park. Their son Roland honed his entrepreneur skills as a cook, a trash collector and is pictured in our archives in front of the has owned the Carroll Avenue barbershop he has owned for decades. Roland also served a stint as Councilmember for Ward 3.

More on these notable African-Americans can be found online at historictakoma.org and in “Takoma Park,” from the Arcadia Publishing “Images of America” photobook series.

About the Author

Diana Kohn
Diana Kohn is president of Historic Takoma, Inc., which is dedicated to preserving and celebrating the heritage of both Takoma Park MD and DC. Diana is co-author of Images of America: Takoma Park, a photo history of the town.