It's African American History Month, and across Montgomery County, Md., there are about 40 communities that played a very particular role in the region's African American history. They were all settled by freed slaves in the 19th century, and include places like Lyttonsville, Lincoln Park, Sugarland, Jerusalem, Tobytown, Stewartown, Ken-Gar, Sandy Spring, and Scotland. They're often referred to as "kinship communities."
Author and journalist John Muller hails from the Sandy Spring area, and says growing up, he got a good feeling for what that "kinship means."
"The Briscoe family grew up right around Zion and Brookeville Road. They had a very large extended family," he recalls. "And the fellow I went to school with, he would call people his brothers or cousins that didn't necessarily have the same last name. I don't think they were of blood relation, but they grew up in the same area. Their parents might have grown up with each other, their grandparents grew up with each other. And so you have these bonds, these relationships, that are passed down from generation to generation."
Sandy Spring is a relatively rural community. While it was settled by Quakers in the 1700s, in the 1800s it became this enclave for emancipated slaves.
"They had the ability to police themselves," Muller says. "It was very self-contained."
Kinship communities fade into history
But since then, successors to these freed slaves have seen that self-contained security decline. A few years ago, Montgomery County told residents of Farm Road that, in short, their private road does not exist. The county says the road isn't on any official records, so the residents don't have any addresses, so, basically, they don't have a right to use that land. The residents' federal complaint against the county was dismissed in 2011, but a group called Save Sandy Spring continues to fight.
And several kinship communities away, in Scotland, Md., people definitely know a thing or two about fighting.
Bernard Scott, 63, lived in Scotland for 45 years before moving to another part of Maryland.
"I no longer live in Scotland, but I have adopted Scotland as my home, and the Scotland residents as my family," he says. "And I hope they feel the same way, too."
Scott has become an amateur historian on the town of Scotland, which first came into the hands of an ex-slave in 1880. But by the 1960s, the place was pretty much a mess.
"When I came in this area in 1968, Seven Locks Road was a dirt road," he says. And the houses, he recalls, were "basically shacks, with no plumbing, no inside bathrooms. And right up the road there, most of the well-to-do Potomac residents were already there. So this area here was being neglected."
"Neglected" may actually be an understatement. In 1964, Scotland was so run-down that the county nearly condemned it. Which is why, in 1965, black residents and some of their white neighbors formed a new kind of union -- "Save Our Scotland" (S.O.S.) -- to save this town they held so dear.
"Another minister was here at the time, and I can't remember saying it, but he told me I said, 'I'll die for Scotland,'" says Betty Thompson, one of the founding members.
Turning around flagging communities through grassroots action
All these years later, at age 77, Thompson is alive and well in Scotland - and full of memories of how she and her fellow SOSers tackled the community's housing problems.
First they raised money by combining the residents' land and selling all but 12 acres to the Montgomery County Park and Planning Commission. Then, after fighting to obtain zoning rights, they went through the Department of Housing and Urban Development to create 100 brand new houses: 75 to rent, "and then 25 of us bought our own," Thompson says.
By 1971, residents of Scotland were able to move into their own townhomes — all equipped with heating, electricity and water. They also finally got a Laundromat, a day-care center, a community center and public transportation.
And Bernard Scott says it was all thanks to that age-old tradition of kinship.
"In a very difficult time, it was a great group of people who were able to stick together, and keep their heads up, when everybody else was trying to separate them and knock their heads off," he says.
Scott says although Scotland is no longer as thriving as it once was, he has high hopes for its future. Residents past and present continue to gather each August for Scotland Community Day. And the more-than-100-year-old Scotland AME Zion Church is still a major hub for what Scott calls the Scotland "family."
"Family is an institution where love lives," he says. "And if there's 17 people living in one house, they're going to fuss, they're going to argue, they're going to step on each other's toes. But they're never going stop loving each other. And that's the way Scotland is."
Back in Sandy Spring, John Muller says that's the way all kinship communities in Montgomery County have traditionally been because of their residents' many shared experiences.
"A shared experience would be surviving, thriving as a community against all odds, or against the prevailing attitudes of the day," he says. "Everyone essentially works to support the whole community."
And, in turn, in true kinship, the whole community works to support them.
[Music: "It's a Family Affair" by John Legend and Joss Stone from Different Strokes By Different Folks]
Photos: Kinship Communities