By Violetta Sharps Jones
When you visit College Park’s Lake Artemesia, you are also visiting the old neighborhoods of Lakeland, an African American community that spanned both sides of the B&O Railroad tracks at Lakeland Road.
The Lakeland community grew as the vision of Edwin Newman, who subdivided this land in 1890 and invited his wealthy friends to build summer homes in the community he designed around a number of small lakes. Newman’s friends purchased the land and built their homes in search of a good place to live, with opportunities for employment and a better quality of life. Lakeland proved to be just the place. African Americans found work with the railroad, the College Park Airport, and the Maryland Agricultural College (which later became the University of Maryland). Others did domestic work or toiled as farmers and building laborers. Families often moved to Lakeland from surrounding counties and as far away as North Carolina, and the newcomers were often family members or friends of residents. As Lakeland grew, Newman’s initial dreams of a resort community for white residents faded. The panic of 1893 and the resulting economic depression made it difficult, at best, for many to buy into Newman’s dream. More African Americans took advantage of the decline in sales to whites, and rented homes on both sides of the railroad tracks.
By 1903, Lakeland was a vibrant African American community, and that same year, residents built the first school, where Lake Artemesia is now. In 1917, Lakeland replaced that school with a larger one, and then, in 1925, built Lakeland Elementary. Education was always a priority for Lakelanders. Religious practice was, too. The community’s oldest congregations, First Baptist Church of Lakeland (now First Baptist Church of College Park) and Embry African Methodist Chapel (now Church) began in homes that no longer exist. As more African Americans moved up from the South during the Great Migration and the two World Wars, Lakeland continued to grow.
In the 1960s, the City of College Park targeted the Lakeland community for redevelopment. Residents were told they would have to sell their homes and their land, and leave. The city promised Lakelanders that they could return and buy new homes once an overpass spanning the railroad tracks was in place. Families were forced out in the 1970s, and the project was slated to take a few years.
Homes in Lakeland were burned to the ground as practice blazes for local firefighters, and for many years, the land simply sat. But these vacant lots held large quantities of high-value gravel, and Metro was under construction. The City of College Park, WMATA and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission struck a deal: The city offloaded land they had no use for, WMATA gained gravel they needed for construction and the commission was given a park. Everyone wins?
When I remember Lakeland’s Eastside, I also remember those brave, early residents who made this beautiful community. Today, there are only a few faded signs marking the homes of these African Americans. The fruits of their labor were washed away, and their footprints are gone. I do remember them all because they were part of my life. My great-grandparents James and Nanie Johnson bought their Lakeland home in 1907, and five generations of my family lived here. I was born in that house and got married in its garden. When my family’s Lakeland home was destroyed, there were thirty other homes — each holding its own generational memory — that were destroyed, as well.
As you come to Lake Artemesia and enjoy this recreational landscape, consider the Lakeland East families who built a thriving community where the lake now sits. Take a moment to remember these families that called Lakeland home, and think about the sacrifices forced on them by the city. Let me speak their names: Hill, Weems, Johnson, Braxton, Harrison, Davis, Giles, Sharps, Smith, Brooks, Fields, Edwards, Blue, Campbell, Hamlett, Howard, Falls, Lomax, Branson, Thomas, Sellers, Green, Gross, Briscoe and Lancaster. These families were my family. Together, we prayed. We worked, we laughed, we celebrated — we lived.