The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In latest Trump-Bowser fight, Republicans accuse D.C. of wanting to relocate the Jefferson Memorial

The Jefferson Memorial in 2019. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

In a summer when President Trump has picked fights with liberal mayors of American cities, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser gave him ammunition Tuesday with a surprising gesture: publishing a sweeping list of historical figures whose names should be removed from public property or “contextualized.” Among the sites mentioned were the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial.

The White House lashed out, calling the moderate Democrat a “radically liberal mayor.” Bowser quickly retreated, modifying the document to remove specific federal properties over which the District has no control.

Even those who support a public reconsideration of whom the nation honors were left wondering whether Bowser had harmed the city’s political standing or the status of a historic renaming project that many view as vitally ­important for this majority-
minority city.

“The mayor usually has very good political instincts. I was just surprised that this came out now, quite frankly,” said Barbara Lang, the former CEO of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce. She said she got texts from friends involved in local politics: “Why are we doing this now?”

Lang said she is deeply concerned about racial justice, which she said might include how the city honors historical figures such as Alexander Graham Bell (an inventor who also believed in eugenics and has a D.C. high school named for him) and slave-owning presidents James Monroe, John Tyler and Zachary Taylor.

Indeed, the racial strife of the present moment has her thinking back to her childhood in Jim Crow-era Florida, when she sat in the front of a bus as a 9-year-old Black girl and an angry White man sat right on top of her.

Still, she believes Bowser should have waited to publish the report until after the presidential election, rather than give Trump another reason to attack the city.

Historians: No, to removing Jefferson, Washington monuments. Yes, to contextualizing them.

To a Democratic strategist working on a 2020 campaign, the wide-ranging list of problematic names was not representative of a serious debate going on in the party, save perhaps for its left-most fringe.

“Democrats need to keep their eye on the ball and not say things that are, on balance, a loser when everything is on the line,” said the strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the matter.

The mayor, her top advisers and the authors of the list would not discuss it Wednesday, a mayoral spokeswoman said.

Republicans in Congress castigated Bowser for the report, which was submitted by a committee that she put together but did not serve on and was released Tuesday by her office.

Many pointed to the page that Bowser removed from the document, which listed eight federal sites that the mayor could consider asking the federal government to “remove, relocate, or contextualize.” The list included the statue of Confederate Gen. Albert Pike that the District has long endorsed removing and that was toppled by protesters June 19, but also world-famous sites such as the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument — both named for presidents who owned enslaved people.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s nonvoting delegate to Congress, said it is ludicrous to believe, as some members of Congress purported to, that the committee wanted the marble monuments on the Mall relocated or torn down.

Those, surely, were ones the committee wanted to “contextualize,” she said, perhaps with a plaque describing how the Founding Fathers also were enslavers.

“It would be absurd to try and diminish the very historic contributions of men who were truly great men. Great men can have flaws,” said Norton (D).

Former D.C. Council member Jack Evans, the city’s longest-serving lawmaker, said the report perhaps should have left out the federal sites from the start and included explanations for concerns about figures such as Benjamin Franklin and Francis Scott Key, who wrote the national anthem. (Both men owned enslaved people at some point and published racist writings, and both have buildings named after them in D.C.)

“Some made sense and some didn’t make sense, and without context, it was hard to figure out why they selected some and not others,” said Evans, who resigned in January after being cited for ethics violations.

The committee chairs have promised to publish a full explanation for each figure on the list.

From bland bureaucrat to anti-Trump fame: Bowser’s transformation.

Bowser had kept relations with Trump and congressional Republicans mostly cordial until this summer, when demonstrations over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody led her to join protesters on the streets outside the White House and order a huge “Black Lives Matter” mural painted, along with the D.C. flag, on the asphalt.

She pushed back hard against the president’s use of federal law enforcement personnel to control demonstrators and took to taunting the president on Twitter. She also said the federal interference in city affairs exemplified the importance of D.C. statehood, an argument that took center stage this summer when a sharply divided U.S. House of Representatives approved a statehood bill for the first time in history.

Polls show that large numbers of Americans oppose statehood for D.C. but also that many are unaware that the city’s 720,000 residents lack voting representation on Capitol Hill. Statehood advocates say achieving their goal requires changing public perception — a task that could be harder amid hoopla over the renaming effort.

Josh Burch, founder of Neighbors United for D.C. Statehood, said he took issue with the timing and rollout of the report, noting that Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) tweeted that the idea of renaming monuments is “beyond offensive” and: “Yet another reason DC should never be a state!”

At the same time, Burch called Graham’s reasoning on the issue “a moral shortcoming. . . . The federal buildings belong to all Americans, including us.”

Bo Shuff, executive director of DC Vote, said statehood opponents in Congress and the White House — who do not want the overwhelmingly Democratic city to have the power to elect two senators and a representative — will always find something to criticize, “no matter how ridiculous.”

After GOP attacks, D.C. residents promote statehood by showing they’re ‘real people.’

Asked whether the timing or characterizations of the report could potentially influence her fight for statehood, Norton — who has called for relocating the controversial Emancipation Memorial and a statue of Andrew Jackson from outdoor spaces to museums — replied, “Not one scintilla.”

“I think this notion of deliberately mischaracterizing what the mayor’s report says is a creature of the times. Because no sane person would call for” removing the Washington Monument, she said. “What it does reflect, though, is there are many among us who don’t want any acknowledgment that any of our forebears had any link to anything like slavery.”

Such an acknowledgment, she and others said, would be an enormous step toward recognizing the historic roles of slavery and racism in American history — whether in the form of a plaque alongside the Washington Monument or a decision to rename a school or a park.

“Public spaces should contain statues for people who we look up to, and who reflect who we are,” she said.

Aside from the one page on federal monuments that was deleted because of the controversy, the report’s other 23 pages call for renaming 21 public schools, 12 recreational facilities, six public housing complexes and other sites. The names that the committee wants taken down include those as well known as Thomas Jefferson (on a middle school and a sports field) and Woodrow Wilson (on a high school), and those as obscure as Arthur Capper, a senator from Kansas who proposed a constitutional amendment to outlaw interracial marriage in 1923 and now has a D.C. public housing complex named for him.

Lisa Mallory, a former D.C. agency head who now leads the business group District of Columbia Building Industry Association, said she thinks Bowser was right to put aside political concerns and publish the report.

“If not now, when?” she said. “This is something that’s in our face on a daily basis. And it’s very hurtful for those of us that have to relive that every day. Every day, that pain gets compounded.”

One of her ancestors was born to an enslaved woman who was impregnated by the man who owned her, Robert Mallory, who represented Kentucky in Congress from 1859 to 1863.

If her congressman-ancestor’s name were on a building, Lisa Mallory said, she would want it taken down.

Michael Scherer contributed to this report.

D.C. statehood approved by U.S. House for first time in history