The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is it Meridian Hill Park or Malcolm X Park? Your answer is meaningful.

Brother Shadee Gholson, of Columbia Heights, front left, and Rashid Ali, of Columbia Heights, front right, participate in a drum circle in Malcolm X or Meridian Hill Park. (Andre Chung for The Washington Post)
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On a hill in the middle of Washington sit 12 acres of landscaped lawns, shaded walkways dotted with statuary, and a majestic cascading fountain. For decades, this public park has been the site of a weekly drum circle; in recent years, it has also attracted a menagerie of tightrope walkers, yogis forming human pyramids, gigantic-bubble blowers and assorted gawkers. The park is indisputably a vibrant part of the community that surrounds it. What it's actually called, however, is a delicate question.

The National Park Service, which oversees it, calls it Meridian Hill Park. So does Wikipedia, Travel and Leisure magazine and nearby yoga studio Hot Spot Dupont (established in 2002), which holds summertime yoga sessions in the park. Many locals, however, refer to it exclusively as Malcolm X Park.

News outlets, including The Washington Post, have used both names at different times. Lyft and Uber appear similarly agnostic and will zip you to the right location regardless of which name you type. In 2006, the D.C. Department of Transportation erected royal blue signs by the park that employ a run-on version of the name — “Meridian Hill Malcolm X Park” — because “the community requested the sign include both names on the panel,” agency spokesman Terry Owens told me. Even the annual May Day festival, which brings together socialists of different stripes, hedges its bets: It uses a parenthetical to advertise its location as “Malcolm X (Meridian Hill) Park.” The name of the park is a sensitive enough subject that Mara Cherkasky, who co-runs local history business Prologue DC, says she’ll switch between calling it Meridian Hill or Malcolm X “depending on who I’m talking to or what I’m talking about.”

The evolution of the name is a bracing reminder of how different D.C.’s history — and its present — has been for various groups of Washingtonians. In 1804, President Thomas Jefferson ordered a small obelisk placed a mile and a half north of the White House to serve as a longitudinal meridian for the new capital city. An owner who acquired the land after the War of 1812 was the first to call it Meridian Hill. The park itself was the brainchild of Mary Foote Henderson, the wife of a senator in post-Civil War Washington who lived nearby. She wanted the federal government to move the White House and the monuments to her neighborhood. She ultimately settled on convincing federal officials to build an Italian Renaissance-style park. To execute her vision, Henderson evicted the residents, a community of working-class African Americans. (Now, “The Henderson” is the name of a nearby boutique condo building whose website uses “Meridian Hill Park.”)

Meridian Hill Park officially opened in 1936. By the 1960s, it had become a gathering place for black activists. Professor and activist Angela Davis is often credited with publicly calling for renaming the park after Malcolm X in 1969, mirroring demands by local organizers like Jan Bailey of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to have a citywide holiday and a memorial in honor of Malcolm X. “One of the things that the activists that renamed the park wanted to ensure was that that area was black people’s land,” says George Derek Musgrove, co-author of “Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital.” “The use of the park in the years after is ... what ends up cementing the name. It was ground zero for black power organizing in D.C.”

A 1970 congressional measure to rename the park for Malcolm X failed, but the name stuck. William Jordan moved to D.C. in 1980 to attend Howard University, and for three years lived in the dorms across from the park, often hanging out there on the weekends. “I didn’t even know it was called Meridian Hill Park until after I graduated,” he recalls. “It’s just like people you know by their nicknames and you have no idea what their real name is.”

Starting in the early aughts, an influx of affluent millennials and empty nesters to the neighborhood drove up home prices, displacing many longtime black middle-class and working-class residents. Old-timers began to notice that with the population shift came an increase in the use of Meridian Hill Park. “People who have shown up in the past 15 years are changing the lexicon of the city,” says Blair Ruble, local historian and author of “Washington’s U Street: A Biography.” “This is one more example of that.”

An unscientific 2014 poll on neighborhood blog Popville, which describes its readership as “affluent young professionals,” seemed to back up those observations. Seventy-one percent of the 2,000 respondents called it Meridian Hill, 15 percent referred to it as Malcolm X, and 13 percent favored the synthesized Meridian Hill/Malcolm X Park.

D.C. Council member Brianne Nadeau, who used to live just south of the park and represents the neighborhoods around it, refers to it both ways and even as “Meridian Hill-slash-Malcolm X”; as her chief of staff Tania Jackson explains, Nadeau is “aware that people identify with both versions of the name for different reasons.” Steve Coleman, who runs Washington Parks & People (originally called Friends of Meridian Hill), also prefers the combined name, even though it’s “a mouthful,” because it captures more of the park’s history.

But in these divisive times, what seems inclusive to one person can feel simply wrong to another. Cyril “Butch” Jackson, 61, started coming to the drum circle — or the “getdown,” as he calls it — when he was 8, and he refers to the park by the name he has used for nearly half a century. “This is Malcolm X Park,” he said. “Meridian Hill’s got nothing to do with it.”

Rachel Kurzius is the senior editor of DCist.

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