D.C. Group Tables Discussion Of Newlands’ Name On Chevy Chase Fountain
An effort to remove the name of Chevy Chase founder Francis Griffith Newlands from a fountain because of his racist views will have to wait.
Gary Thompson, an outgoing member of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission on the D.C. side of Chevy Chase, proposed a resolution suggesting the move last month, eliciting a lot of reaction on a neighborhood listserv and on the Maryland side of the D.C. line.
“The historic record is irrefutable,” Thompson said during the group’s meeting on Monday. “What it boils down to for me is fortitude and courage to just take a position.”
But on Monday, a majority of four members on the seven-member ANC decided to table the resolution, however symbolic.
“This was named by an act of Congress. The only way to change it would be through an act of Congress” said ANC member Rebecca Maydak. “The fountain was not intended to celebrate Newlands’ racist beliefs. I don’t think we should be doing this because we have no place in this argument.”
She would go on to say that the community wasn’t given enough notice of the resolution.
“Killing it with process is a way of just sort of killing it,” Thompson said later.
The fountain named after Newlands sits in Chevy Chase Circle, the large traffic circle and federal park that divides D.C. and Maryland. It was built in 1938 to memorialize the contributions of Newlands, the Nevada congressman who bought up much of the real estate from Dupont Circle to Jones Bridge Road, who founded Chevy Chase and who helped build Connecticut Avenue.
Newlands, who died in 1917, developed much of the area through his Chevy Chase Land Company, which remains as one of the area’s most prominent developers.
The Land Company repaired the fountain in 1990 to recognize the 100th anniversary of the founding of Chevy Chase and also rededicated the fountain as the Francis Griffith Newlands Memorial Fountain — recognized by a plaque on-site and on the National Register of Historic Places.
But Thompson and others said Chevy Chase has long moved on from the segregationist beliefs that Newlands held and, according to the resolution, used in building Chevy Chase as a whites-only society.
“Senator Newlands was instrumental in the creation of Chevy Chase D.C. & MD, but he supported the exclusion of non-whites from the neighborhood, and race segregation generally. Many property deeds in Chevy Chase included a racist covenant precluding land from being owned by African-Americans or Jews (those covenants have since been declared void). He also used the formation of Rock Creek Park as a segregationist barrier in D.C. generally,” read the resolution.
The Chevy Chase Historical Society (based on the Maryland side of the D.C. line) refuted that bit of history in a letter to Thompson last week:
In fact, Senator Newlands never included racial covenants in the deeds for land in Chevy Chase. In the CCHS documentary, Chevy Chase, Maryland: A Streetcar to Home, Elizabeth Jo Lampl, architectural historian and co-author of Chevy Chase: A Home Suburb for the Nation’s Capital, stated that the original covenants in these deeds did not mention race:
Although many upscale suburban developments of the late 19th century routinely imposed racial and religious restrictions in the deeds, our research shows that the Chevy Chase Land Company never included such restrictions in the early years of Chevy Chase.
Nonetheless, Lampl and her co-author Kimberly Prothro Williams report in their book that early deeds from the Land Company to individual purchasers did include covenants providing that “houses fronting upon Connecticut Avenue could not cost less than $5,000 each; houses on the side streets could not cost less than $3,000…” (p. 56) These covenants certainly had the effect of limiting the people who could live in Chevy Chase. Given the economic realities of the time, they undoubtedly prevented many minority groups from purchasing homes in Chevy Chase. Lampl further states in the documentary that by the early 1930s, deeds in some sections of Chevy Chase did include restrictions based on race and religion.
But these were not the work of Sen. Newlands, who died in 1917. Ultimately all racial covenants were struck down and rendered unenforceable by the Supreme Court in 1948.
While not taking a side on the debate on removing Newlands’ name, the Historical Society did include an argument that many in opposition have made since Thompson introduced the resolution:
Senator Newlands’ views on race are a matter of public record and have been well-documented over the years. And while today we, and most Americans, find those views repugnant, they were widely-held both in our area and throughout the nation during Senator Newlands’ lifetime.
“If you know American history, you know that’s a lot of BS,” said ANC Commissioner David Engel. “Thirty years before we had the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. They weren’t enacted by the tooth fairy. This is not a man of his times. He was a man who created his times.”
Edward Sisson, a retired attorney who lives in the Maryland section of Chevy Chase, first suggested to the ANC the idea of removing Newlands’ name in 2008.
It was upon the inauguration of Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, that Sisson said he saw many out-of-towners arriving for the event through the Circle, unknowingly passing a monument to a man who advocated against black people’s right to vote.
“I just said, forget that,” Sisson told the ANC. “That is unacceptable.”
Thompson said he picked up on the issue a few months ago. While getting the actual removal of Newlands’ name would require agreement from a host of agencies — including the National Park Service — Thompson said it was a worthwhile effort.
“Whether it takes two weeks or 10 years, I don’t know that that really matters,” Thompson said. “What I know is the first step in the process is our little ANC at least making a suggestion.
“We’re not trying to change history. What’s different to me about this fountain is that it’s honorific. It actually celebrates this gentlemen and that’s really what it comes down to,” Thompson said. “Maybe at one point in Chevy Chase’s history, the community was quite comfortable with that, but I don’t think we should be anymore. To me, it’s not a very big deal to just de-name the fountain.”
Photos via Wikimedia by AgnosticPreachersKid and J.E. Purdy