Lakeland’s story mirrors much of the African American experience during legalized segregation in the United States. Located in the South near the District of Columbia, but also in close proximity to Baltimore, the community has a narrative that includes elements of Southern life and of African Americans’ Great Migration northward in search of wider opportunities. The story of Lakeland is representative of many African American communities that grew and flourished despite the limitations of a less than hospitable society.
In the late 1890s, Prince George’s County, Maryland, was overwhelmingly populated by whites. Early in that decade, developer Edwin A. Newman designed Lakeland to be a resort-style suburban community, although much of the area was wetlands and undesirable for development. At that time, Lakeland’s African American residents lived near Paint Branch and Indian Creek, east of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad tracks, while white residents resided on the western side of that divide. This began to change around the dawn of the 20th century when African Americans Benjamin Robert Hicks, John C. Johnson, and Joseph Brooks moved their families to new homes in an area west of the railroad tracks. Oral histories tell us that these families endured threats to their lives and property. Over the next several years, nearly all of the white residents left as African Americans continued to arrive to make homes in Lakeland.
Religious life and education were always the backbone of the community and were seen by many as essential for life. By 1903, Lakeland was an established African American community with two churches and a school. Meetings for “song and praise” in individuals’ homes led to the establishment of two congregations: First Baptist Church, founded in 1891, and Embry African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded in 1903. Lakelanders opened their community’s first school in 1903. Prince George’s County Board of Education documents designated it as a school for the “new colored of Lakeland.” That school was soon too small to meet the needs of the community and was replaced by a larger structure in 1917. As Lakeland continued to grow, the Julius Rosenwald Fund, which assisted in the building of more than 5,000 schools for African Americans in the South, helped Lakeland build two more schools, an elementary school in 1925 and a high school in 1928.
Lakeland is centrally located within a group of small, interconnected, historically African American communities along U.S. Route 1, from Laurel, Maryland, to the District of Columbia. Tied together by family, education, and recreation, these communities drew together to meet the needs of their residents. In the 1920s, representatives of the communities of Bladensburg, North Brentwood, Ammendale, Muirkirk, and Laurel joined Lakelanders in requesting a high school to serve the area’s African Americans. With public funding, money raised within the communities, and additional aid from the Rosenwald Fund, the school was built. In September 1928, Lakeland High School opened with students attending from those communities. From then until 1950, when the student body was moved to a new high school in Fairmount Heights, Maryland, Lakeland High School served as a cultural and social center for African American families throughout northern Prince George’s County. Sterling and Bettye Queen, both raised in North Brentwood and graduates of Lakeland High School, explained that attending school together made for a sense of family. Bettye noted that all the “families knew families in Lakeland.”
Lakeland’s topography and location near Paint Branch and Indian Creek provided an ongoing challenge to the community. Nearly all of the area was within a 100-year flooding zone. However, some sections experienced flooding yearly, resulting in loss of possessions and deterioration of structures. By 1961, a substantial number of homes in the community did not meet modern housing standards. Community leaders sought help from the city government. After much study and consultation with Lakelanders, the City of College Park requested federal government help in the form of flood control and funding for redevelopment and home renovations. The request ultimately resulted in the Lakeland Urban Renewal Plan, approved by the city in 1970. When the topic of urban renewal has been brought up during the documentation of oral histories, volunteers conducting the interviews have encountered long pauses, curt summaries, and unexpected omissions from Lakelanders who recall the experience. From the 1960s through the mid-1980s, the urban renewal process in Lakeland demolished many family homes, displaced 104 of 150 households, and replaced much of the neighborhood with a mix of subsidized townhouses, high-density apartments largely inhabited by students, and an elder housing facility. Few of the many families forced to leave during construction could resettle in Lakeland. The depth of this loss continues to affect heritage preservation in Lakeland today, as current residents in the City of College Park and the surrounding area often have no knowledge of Lakeland and its unique history. However, Lakeland residents are proving their resiliency by their active commitment to sharing and preserving their own history, as is reflected in a 1987 poem by Lakelander Shirley Randall Anderson:
Our Lovely Town, O Lakeland Town
Of Maples, Elms and Oaks.
A quiet town, a peaceful town,
Of Kind and gentle folks.
Our fathers stood with strength
And faith, to make this township stand.
We love this strand of quiet land.