The city of Silver Spring has come a long way since it was first discovered and later settled by the family of Francis Preston Blair in the 1840’s.
According to local author and historian Jerry McCoy, the true birthplace of Silver Spring is in Acorn Park, at the corner of Kennett Street and East-West Highway. It was this location that Francis Preston Blair accidentally discovered one day in 1840, while chasing after his horse, Selim.
“He caught up with Selim, who had stopped and was lapping up the sparkling water that was bubbling out of the Earth,” McCoy said. “That was how the community got its name, because of the mica flakes in the water that sparkled like silver.”
As Blair built a successful career as editor of the Washington Globe, he was also an advisor to Abraham Lincoln. His son, Francis, Jr., became a Union general, while his other son, Montgomery Blair, joined Lincoln’s presidential cabinet. But during this time, the Blair family fortune was also built on the backs of slaves.
“He was a founder of the Republican Party, which was anti-slavery,” McCoy said. “But then, on the other hand, he had slaves, so he was a man of contradictions.”
McCoy discovered this truth through the 1850 and 1860 federal census, which recorded the Blair family as the owner of 20 slaves.
While Maryland served the North in the Civil War, it was also considered a border state – with an agricultural economy that used slave labor, until Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
In 1843, the Blairs came together with the Lees, another Montgomery County powerhouse family, through the wedding of Samuel Philips Lee and Elizabeth Blair.
Despite a distant family connection to Confederate General Robert E. Lee, the Silver Spring Lees were more than happy to side with the North, while pushing for an end to slavery.
“Lincoln reached out to Francis Preston Blair, my great-great-grandfather, and said he’d like to have an audience with Robert E. Lee and give him the generalship for the Union,” said relative Bruce Lee. “Unfortunately, he turned it down. Meantime, the rest of our family on this side of the river, we fought very hard with the Union.”
McCoy said the Blair’s slaves lived in four separate quarters on the family’s 1,000-acre estate, which has since been transformed into what is now downtown Silver Spring.
The fates of the Blair family slaves were mostly lost to history, with the exception of Henry Lemon. According to a post-Civil War census, he was a coachman who lived in northeast D.C., and is believed to have later applied for a janitor position at the Blair House on Pennsylvania Avenue – which still stands today as the official guest residence of the president.