D.C.’s Bellevue library faces name controversy

September 26, 2011

A new $15 million library designed by renowned architect David Adjaye is set to open in the District in a few months — but its name is still unsettled.

The D.C. Public Library Board of Trustees and the Friends of Bellevue Library are railing against Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s efforts to rename the building after late D.C. State Board of Education member William O. Lockridge, a veteran educator and community activist.

Trustees have adhered to policy and have voted to rename the library — known as Washington Highlands Neighborhood Library and expected to open in January — for the Bellevue neighborhood that surrounds it, said board President John W. Hill Jr. The mayor’s efforts go against a city law that prohibits naming public buildings after people who have not been dead for at least two years, he added.

But the objection appears to be more complex. Lockridge, Hill said, was not a proponent of the library. “I’m really not clear about the positive legacy Mr. Lockridge has made on the library,” he said.

Dionne Y. Brown, president of the friends group, described Lockridge as a divisive figure during the battle for the library several years ago. “The general sentiment was that the amount of money being spent was too much,” she said. “He was saying the money should be spent on social service programs.”

In an emotional e-mail last week to Hill and Ginnie Cooper, the system’s chief librarian, Brown said her group will disband if the library is named after Lockridge, who died in January of respiratory failure after suffering a stroke.

“This is painful, as we were the proponents of the construction of the new edifice during wide-spread community opposition. It is as if the unborn fruit of our womb is being ripped from us,” Brown wrote. “The magnitude of the absurdity of this situation is astounding.”

Wanda Lockridge said her husband was an avid reader and proponent of education, so renaming the library is not far-fetched. “I don’t recall William ever being opposed to the library,” she said.

Shortly after Lockridge’s death, Gray announced that naming the library after the educator would be a fitting tribute.

“We thought it was a good idea,” said Wanda Lockridge, who added that she did not anticipate the pushback and that she is hoping for a compromise that would give equal billing to the library and her husband.

But the Bellevue friends and library board appear unmoved. Brown said that the mayor (D) made his wishes known without consulting stakeholders and that this has put him in a tough position.

“He just made this flippant promise, a handshake and a backslap,” she said, noting that the library will be one of the most expensive, significant buildings in the community. (London-based architect Adjaye was selected to design the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a Smithsonian addition.)

Brown added that the Gray administration helped to stir emotions last week. He sent a letter reiterating support for Lockridge’s name on the library to D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D), although an administration official acknowledged the board’s decision to name the library after Bellevue in testimony before the council on the same day.

Linda Wharton Boyd, the mayor’s spokeswoman, said Monday that the administration is working on a compromise. “The mayor has asked [Chief of Staff] Chris Murphy and community relations director Steve Glaude to convene a meeting of all parties to discuss the concerns and to reach some common ground,” she said.

Lockridge said that in some ways the fight over naming the library is a tribute to her husband. “If there wasn’t a little bit of controversy, it wouldn’t be William anyway,” she said.

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