Family offers an unbroken link to Prathertown’s past

County is trying to preserve three homes by designating them as historic sites

Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2006

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Charlie Shoemaker⁄The Gazette
Sharon Prather of Brookeville, with her sister Carolyn Howard of Aspen Hill and their mother, Edna, in the family home in Prathertown.

Fifty years have provided a feeling of distance, but Sharon Prather and Carolyn Howard clearly recall those mornings spent standing at the corner of Wightman and Prathertown roads — and the whites-only school bus as it rumbled past, without the slightest notion of stopping.

‘‘The bus for the white kids would just pass us up and they’d be going right that way anyway,” Howard said.

‘‘That’s just the way it was,” Prather added. ‘‘Segregated.”

Passed by, perhaps, but far from ignored.

‘‘They’d put down their windows,” Howard explained, ‘‘and call us the N-word.”

The ensuing years were hard ones for the Prather family, the sisters say — the anonymous phone calls, the constant threats, even once when someone threw a Molotov cocktail onto the porch of Poplar Grove Church, where their father, the Rev. James E. Prather, was pastor.

But Rev. Prather did not back down from his role on the county school board or the NAACP. Soon, several of the Prather children were among the very first to integrate county schools.

‘‘I was in second grade, and of course, the little kids are going to act the way they parents act — you know, ugly, calling you names,” Sharon Prather remembered.

Edna Prather, their mother, wouldn’t have had it any other way.

‘‘I was determined that my kids were going to school because they had been short-changed long enough. I don’t regret one bit of it when I see how my kids have grown up. It’s been worth it all, worth it all. There isn’t a day that goes by or a night goes by that I don’t thank God for it,” she said.

Turning into Prathertown from Wightman Road, the gleaming-new condominium complex on the corner is a stark reminder that the biggest threat to Prathertown these days just might be the steady march of development.

All but two homes in Prathertown have fallen out of Prather hands. Now, her mother scraping by on Social Security checks and her husband’s church pension, offer after offer coming in from interested developers, Sharon fears the coming day when Edna just doesn’t have it in her to cope.

When told that her half-acre is worth $272,450, according to state tax records — nearly 11,000 times more than the original fetching price — Sharon Prather asked her mother, ‘‘You hear that?” to which Edna replied, ‘‘Yeah, I hear. Sounds might good.”

Sharon Prather, who lives in Brookeville, insists that she wants the house to stay in the family.

‘‘That’s just the kids talkin’,” her mother teased, then turned for a moment more sullen. ‘‘No, it’ll be very tough. It’s a lot of memories right here in Prathertown.”

Brewing root beer and canning peaches, string beans and strawberries in the summer. Dancing in Uncle Joe’s yard to the sweet new sounds of Motown. The Rev. Prather on his piano or harmonica, Christmas carols. The huge family dinners every Sunday night. The strolls up Wightman Road to see their cousin for a scoop of ice cream at the Black and White Inn.

Those memories evoke a feeling all their own, fond and bittersweet, a measure of the wide gulf between then and now.

‘‘I don’t see it as slipping away. It’s just that Ma says she’s not cooking anymore,” said Howard, of Aspen Hill, sending up another round of laughter.

Then Edna Prather cut in.

‘‘Since daddy passed,” she said, referring to Rev. Prather, who died in 2002, ‘‘I have said more than once it seemed like everybody had forgotten that I was here. You know, when you’re used to having everyone coming and going and then all of a sudden it stops, it makes a difference. I miss it, I miss it.”

Prathertown’s is a story paralleled in other parts of the county: 13 acres bought by former slaves in 1883, built up by succeeding generations through thrift, know-how and family — in many ways not unlike other ‘‘kinship communities” in the county, said Clare Kelly, a county historic designation planner.

But unlike Stewartown and Emory Grove, she said, where most of the original buildings have been overrun by development, Prathertown is unique in having been able to retain much of its original character.

There was a flurry of attention in 2003 when the county’s dedication of a historic marker in Prathertown drew out members of the County Council. Soon after, Sharon Prather’s history of Prathertown set off another surge of interest.

But inevitably, the attention died down.

The county is now trying to preserve three homes in Prathertown by designating them as historic sites.

Those buildings, Kelly said, stand as an unbroken link connecting the community to its history — as much for the Prathers as for a community at large that can ill afford to forget its too-ignored past.

‘‘If we lose that, we lose the part of our history that reminds us of the communities and struggles of blacks, the adversity that they had to overcome,” she said. ‘‘Once those sites are gone, you don’t have that context and it makes it harder for folks to remember, to realize that that is part of our history.”

The County Council’s vote on historic designation should come later this year.

Sitting together Saturday afternoon in the living room of the Prathertown home the family built by hand in 1942, the enduring contradiction for sisters Carolyn and Sharon and their mother Edna is that, as reminded by the county’s recent wave of hate crimes, the memories may feel long gone but the legacy lingers on.

‘‘All this crazy stuff, it doesn’t make sense. We’re all human beings,” said Edna Prather, still hardy despite her 87 years. ‘‘It’s really so sad. I don’t think that we will ever get rid of it. It will always, always be here. There’s always someone with all this hate in them.”

Nor does the legacy of the past always manifest so sinisterly as hate crimes and segregation, the trio explained. The conversation quickly turned to the struggle last year over the naming of a park on the other side of Wightman Road. Whereas the Montgomery Village Foundation, which owns the land, eventually chose Milton M. Kaufmann, a world-renowned environmentalist who lives in the Village, the county Planning Board wanted the Rev. Prather to at least share the honor.

After several tense and emotional meetings, the foundation board chose Kaufmann for the park and offered a baseball field for the Prather name, which the family declined as an insult.

The wounds, Sharon Prather says, remain open.

‘‘That was shocking, because being so close to the Village, it was really an eye-opener because I just didn’t...” Sharon Prather said, checking herself. ‘‘I had heard other people say, you know, racism is still rampant. But I couldn’t believe it, I just couldn’t believe it. That was a learning experience for me, the attitudes that some people still hold.”

The foundation has since been working with the county to find an appropriate way to honor the Rev. Prather’s name, but in the meantime, Sharon Prather hopes to write a follow-up history and keep giving speeches to historical and genealogical societies. She’ll also keep working toward master’s degrees in divinity and education, she says — be an evangelist like her father, and maybe do some teaching.

‘‘It’s up to us to keep the memory alive. We have to tell everyone, ‘This is Prathertown,’ whether they want to hear or don’t want to hear it,” Sharon said.