In a Zoom meeting on July 27, commissioners voted 5 to 0 to ask the National Park Service, which manages the fountain and the land on which it rests, to remove a bronze plaque bearing Newlands’s name and to create an exhibit nearby that explains the senator’s racism. The commission will also begin discussions on a new name for the fountain.
“There is no place for systemic racism in the Chevy Chase community,” the resolution reads.
Like the removal of Confederate monuments in Richmond and elsewhere after the death of George Floyd, the effort to strip Newlands’s name from the 87-year-old fountain has been years in the making.
In 2014, the commission — made up of nonpartisan elected officials who offer advice that D.C. leaders listen to, but need not follow — considered a proposal to rename it “Chevy Chase Fountain.” The matter was tabled to give the community more time to consider the idea.
Six years later, neighborhood officials are done thinking about it — but can’t act unilaterally. The National Park Service is determining what it can change about the memorial without an act of Congress, but only Congress — with a bill sponsored by a supportive member — can change the name.
“Because the fountain was specified by Congress as a memorial, specifically, it would take an act of Congress to un-memorialize it,” Bradley Krueger, the agency’s Rock Creek Park cultural resource specialist, said at the meeting.
Another complication: The fountain, dedicated in 1933, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, but its plaque wasn’t placed until 1990 by the Park Service and the Chevy Chase Land Co., which Newlands founded. The Park Service must determine which laws protect which parts of the memorial.
“We acknowledge that the name of the fountain and associated plaque represent a controversial figure and chapter of American history,” Park Service spokeswoman Katelyn Liming wrote in an email. “Rock Creek Park is committed to working with the community and partners to create exhibits for the site that provide more context around Newlands and a more holistic history.”
Chevy Chase Land Co., which is still a player in the region’s real estate market, didn’t respond to a request for comment, but a statement recently posted to its website said that “despite Senator Newlands’ accomplishments, his views on race contradict the ideals of our company fabric.”
“We are committed to taking a collaborative, community-first approach to investing in our neighborhoods, and we recognize that the Francis Griffith Newlands Memorial Fountain has a divisive impact,” the statement said. “Should the community vote to rename the fountain, we wholeheartedly support their decision and commit to supporting the necessary steps required to make the change.”
Newlands’s legacy is not limited to racism.
William D. Rowley, a professor emeritus at the University of Nevada at Reno who wrote a book about the senator and spoke at the commission meeting, said Newlands was also a progressive who supported women’s suffrage.
However, Rowley said he supported the fountain name change and another under discussion in Newlands Park, a Reno neighborhood named for the senator. Newlands was “an old-time, 19th-century unreconstructed Democrat,” Rowley said, who “believed that the United States was for White people only.”
“We need not freeze remote past values in public spaces when they are clearly archaic and profoundly offensive,” he wrote in an email.
Not everyone supports renaming the fountain. Resident Jacqueline Arrowsmith said she grew up two blocks from the fountain and has lived in the Chevy Chase area for more than 40 years.
In a letter to the commission, Arrowsmith said the fountain “does not honor Senator Newlands for his views on race and ethnicity, it honors his achievements as a developer.”
“If renaming the fountain would bring back George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, or Ahmaud Arbery, I would be all for it,” the letter said. “But such a symbolic gesture would not revive the people of color killed, or heal those injured, or free those unjustly arrested. This whole endeavor seems to be a quick fix to assuage white guilt.”
In 2015, a group of Newlands’s descendants wrote the commission to criticize their forefather’s racism but defend the fountain that bears his name.
“Our family’s complicated history is not unique, and as Americans we should all engage in honest dialogue about how to embody our country’s best ideals,” the letter said. “Renaming the Newlands Fountain would not help achieve these goals — it would merely erase an important reminder of our complicated history.”
The letter’s signatories did not respond to a request for comment emailed to an address in the letter.
Chanda Tuck Garfield, the commissioner who wrote the resolution, said at the meeting that whatever his accomplishments, Newlands used “racist language, to be frank, to divide our community.” She brought the resolution forward in the name of the recently deceased congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis.
“We are full of good, honest, hard-working people who want a better way of life, and we want an equitable place to live,” she said.