Updated: Aug 4, 2020
The Resettlement Administration's earliest plans for the land that would become Greenbelt included an area called the Rossville Rural Development, which was to be lived on and farmed by Black families. However, in the climate of strict segregation in Prince George’s County and the state of Maryland, these controversial plans were quickly dropped. So sadly, though Greenbelt was a relief project built by both Black and white workers, because of segregation, only white families would be accepted to move into the experimental town.
As mentioned above, some of the early plans for Greenbelt included an 800 acre section of land to be set aside to house Black families. Until very recently, we did not know exactly where this area was. In an early map of the Greenbelt project (see image above), there is an area marked with the words “Rural Development” which we thought might refer to the Rossville Rural Development. We know now this is not the case and that the rural development noted on that early map was set aside for white families. Based on a map found recently by Greenbelt researcher, Ben Fischler,* at the National Archives, it’s clear that the land that was proposed for Black families was actually much farther away from the rest of the Greenbelt project than the rural development pictured here. It was situated near Muirkirk Road and the Old Baltimore Turnpike, just near Rossville, a historically black community (more information below).
Even at this distance away from the rest of the proposed housing for Greenbelt, the inclusion of an area for Black families proved too controversial. According to Joseph Arnold, who wrote one of the first books about Greenbelt, The New Deal in the Suburbs: A History of the Greenbelt Town Program 1935-1954 (1971), the planners dropped inclusion of this part of the project because of strong local opposition. According to several newspaper articles, local residents in Berwyn Heights and then-president of the Maryland state senate, Lansdale Sasscer, strongly objected to the project altogether and specifically to the inclusion of families of color. The citizens’ chief objections, according to an article by the Associated Press that ran on October 16, 1935, were that the project would attract “transient labor,” the possibility that “Negro” residents might be housed in the community, and the fact that the model community would not be subject to taxation.
Additionally, Arnold refers to the work of Cedric Larson in explaining the exclusion of Black families. Larson researched Greenbelt tenant selection in 1938 and spoke to government officials involved in the process. According to him they referenced Langston Terrace, the Washington, D.C. government housing project intended for Black families, as an excuse for why families of color weren’t included at Greenbelt. There is no doubt that there was demonstrated need for better housing for Black families, in parts of DC. One of the photographers for the Resettlement Administration (renamed the Farm Security Administration) was Carl Mydans. He took dozens of photographs documenting the living conditions of some of the struggling Black families in the city (though not all – the U Street NW area of DC was home to many thriving Black families and businesses). Despite the fact that Greenbelt was built by both Black and white laborers, it would remain an all-white community for many decades. It was the 1960s before people of color moved in to integrate the community.
Rossville Rural Development was most likely named after the historically Black community situated along Muirkirk Road. Rossville was originally home to families whose men had worked at the Muirkirk Furnace, an ironworks that had been established before the Civil War. Following the war, the area’s black residents formed a community that continues to exist today. To learn more about local Black history, visit or read about nearby Abraham Hall. It was constructed in 1889 and is the best example of an African-American benevolent society lodge in Prince George's County. It also now houses the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission’s Black History Program.
*Many thanks to Ben Fischler for sharing his research which identified the correct proposed location of the Rossville Rural Development. We do not have a good clear image of the map at present, but stay tuned. We hope to have one to share.