Chevy Chase Circle Fountain: A Call To Rededicate A Memorial To Racism

Chevy Chase Fountain-aerial.jpg

On the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, C-SPAN watchers nationwide saw an especially poignant symbolic moment. Assembled on the floor of the Capitol Rotunda, along with House and Senate members, were hundreds of guests. Behind every speaker stood the marble statue of Abraham Lincoln, bending benignly, holding in his outstretched hand a folded Emancipation Proclamation.

When the speaker’s spot was taken by the current occupant of Lincoln’s office — a black man, an African-American — President Obama spoke in honor of the Great Emancipator. The fruition of Lincoln’s sacrifice stood, proven and achieved, before the statue of the murdered President.

Symbols — statues, plaques — matter. Sprinkled about our cities, they come into being as the result of contemporary interests and priorities. But who can tell, as time flows on, whether history will welcome their enduring presence, or wish to wipe them out?

One such memorial that ought to be wiped out is a monument to a man who stood against everything Lincoln stood for. It is a memorial that disgraces the City of Washington, the capitol of the nation: A memorial fountain that honors the perniciously racist U.S. Senator Francis G. Newlands. The current Majority Leader of the Senate, Harry Reid – who was on the speaker’s platform at the celebration, and who spoke after President Obama did – holds the seat that Newlands once held.

The fountain, built and dedicated in the mid-1930s, is not located in some obscure spot where few stumble upon it. No, it is positioned at one of the major commuter entrances to the City, right at the border, on Connecticut Avenue at Chevy Chase Circle. I live not far away, and I know that every day, tens of thousands of people see it; not only commuters, but those who come into the city from Interstate 95 and the Beltway.

The circle is an urban design whose symbolic function is to create a visual focal-point. Those entering or leaving the City must make-way, defer, bend aside to accommodate whatever the planners of the city choose to place there. This particular circle is one of only four circular entrances into the Capital. One of those circles honors Lincoln. Another honors Robert F. Kennedy. A third is vacant. And the fourth honors the racist Newlands.

Newlands was a U.S. Senator who died in office in 1917. He openly called, as late as 1912, for amending the constitution to strip the vote from African-Americans. His segregated land development plans established a precedent for segregated suburbs that spread across America. He openly called for African-American education to be limited to education for domestic and menial work. A leading contemporary African-American newspaper editor put Newlands on the same lowest level of dishonor as “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman of South Carolina and “Great White Chief” Jim Vardeman of Mississippi. But Newlands, who as a young man started his career in California and was elected from Nevada, could not even make the feeble excuse, as they might have, of being the product of a people historically conditioned to race prejudice.

Newlands’ race bigotry was the product of greed and ambition, not upbringing, and it encompassed animosity towards Asians and everyone else not of the white race. He saw racism as a means of winning votes, and of making money. Lots of money.

Anyone who looks at urban residential patterns sees the de facto racial segregation of neighborhoods. But only students of the history of urban and suburban development recognize that these segregated patterns were not the result of mere happenstance.

In the decades after the Civil War, the newly-freed slaves may nominally have held legal rights, but whites still held all the money and all the land. Before Newlands began his political career, he was the manager and trustee of a vast fortune made by his wife’s family in western gold and silver, and he used that fortune to buy vast tracts of what is now the northwest section of Washington D.C.

In the 1880s and 1890s, Rock Creek Park was set-aside, nominally as a region of recreation, but also as a barrier to racial integration. East of the park might be integrated, but not West. From Florida Avenue north, Connecticut Avenue and the neighborhoods surrounding it are all Newlands’ creation, all the way past the District Line several miles into Maryland. Newlands instituted racist policies over all this land, including at the fancy Chevy Chase Club which he founded and of which he was the first President. (Chief Justice Roberts recently joined that racially-insensitive institution, and I see it as a telling “freudian slip” that Roberts would strike the one false note at the historic inauguration’s key moment.)

The Newlands’ land extended west all the way to Wisconsin Avenue. Today, anyone can log-on to Google Earth and see the line of expensive shops along the east side of Wisconsin Avenue, north of Western Avenue. Those shops – promoted by the still-operating company that Newlands founded, the Chevy Chase Land Company – call themselves the “Rodeo Drive” of the East Coast.

The land under every single one of those shops would be owned by African-Americans, and not by Newlands’ legacy company, were it not for Newlands’ racism. In 1909, when Newlands discovered that the sub-developer to whom he had sold the land intended to develop it as residences for African-Americans, Newlands sued the developer for fraud and got the land back. Rather than let African-Americans live near whites, the company left the land largely unused for almost 100 years.

Newlands’ segregated approach became a model for racist land development nationwide. White Americans who look with fear on the poverty and danger of many African-American urban neighborhoods can blame developers like Newlands and his progeny, who, by creating white enclaves, necessarily also created black enclaves.

The fountain at Chevy Chase Circle is the legacy of Newlands’ land development efforts. His widow paid for it, and her friends lobbied for it. It was not the work of anyone from Nevada who might have wanted to honor their Senator. It was merely an effort to beautify a suburban development. No one knew in the mid-1930s that Connecticut Avenue would become a major thoroughfare into the City.

To honor Lincoln and Robert Kennedy, city planners may justly ask the citizens to “bend aside” at a traffic circle, but not to honor Newlands. We are fortunate that the memorial is not a statue, but a fountain. A statue cannot be renamed; it looks like the person it originally honored. But a fountain can be renamed with the stroke of a pen and the replacement of a plaque. The Chevy Chase Circle fountain instead should honor one or more notable and historically significant African-Americans whose lives stand for the achievement of equal rights and for human dignity for all.

The matter should ultimately be in the hands of the people’s elected officials. But I have proposed that a woman born enslaved in the District, who attained a college degree and became a leading educator – Fanny Muriel Jackson Coppin – should be one person honored. Another should be, not the obvious choice of Frederick Douglass (who is already honored in several places), but his oldest son, Lewis Henry Douglass, who was a heroic sergeant in the Colored Troops who fought in the battle immortalized in the motion picture Glory, and who, as a legislator for the District during the short-lived period of Reconstruction, authored the District’s first anti-discrimination law.

When Congress restructured the District government and abolished the seat Lewis Douglass once held, the new government conveniently “forgot” Douglass’ anti-discrimination law, by leaving it out of the statute-books. But in the 1950s a diligent researcher re-discovered the law. The DC prosecutor applied it, and the Supreme Court affirmed it.

The racism of Newlands, however conveniently hidden, has also been rediscovered. A people that has just elected the first African-American US President should no longer need to suffer this embarrassment. Action is necessary to strike Senator Francis G. Newlands from the roster of Americans honored in our capital city.

Edward Hawkins Sisson is a Washington D.C.-based attorney. See The Chevy Chase Fountain for an album of photographs and documents. Selected Sisson papers available at the Social Science Research Network (SSRN).