Under the legislation, Lafayette Recreation Center and Lafayette Park in Chevy Chase would be renamed Lafayette-Pointer to include George Pointer, who bought his own freedom at age 19 and became an accomplished engineer who helped shape the District of Columbia.
Like other bills that passed a preliminary vote Tuesday, they will require a second vote in two weeks, and the approval of D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), to become law.
James Fisher, an eighth-generation descendant of Pointer, told the council in September that Pointer earned money to buy his freedom in part by working for George Washington, the first president.
“His life story is extraordinary, but what is so amazing is that 247 years have passed with him being virtually unknown,” said Fisher, who added that a book and a college course on Pointer and his descendants are in the making.
Pointer’s granddaughter bought land along Broad Branch Road that the family owned for more than 80 years before they were abruptly evicted in 1928, in an eminent domain proceeding to make space for the school that is now Lafayette Elementary and the adjacent park. Both served a mostly White community.
(The school and park are separate from Lafayette Square, the federal park in front of the White House that also bears the name of Marquis de Lafayette, the French military tactician who helped the United States win the Revolutionary War.)
“The legacy of Black land loss and the fracturing it causes succeeding generations is difficult, if not almost impossible, to overcome,” Fisher testified. “Having the opportunity to regain that place called home is a step towards regaining some of that . . . It will be a beginning for our family’s healing from an unimaginable loss.”
The Department of Parks and Recreation said that signage reflecting the name change would cost $18,000.
The park was not on a list of dozens of sites — including recreation centers, public housing and public schools — recommended for renaming in September by a mayoral committee because their namesakes enslaved others, crafted racist or discriminatory policy or otherwise perpetuated injustice.
That list included long-endorsed ideas like removing President Woodrow Wilson’s name from one of the city’s most prominent public high schools, as well as more controversial proposals. The committee castigated revered founding father Benjamin Franklin for his racist writings, for example, and said national anthem writer Francis Scott Key should not have a school named for him because he enslaved people.
Many of the group’s recommendations involve historical figures who are nearly unknown among the public today. The group behind the list has yet to publish the detailed explanation it promised in September of why those people’s actions could disqualify them from being namesakes of city property.
Once that report is issued, the council (and, in the case of schools, the student community) will have the option of pursuing legislation to give new names to any or all of the contested sites.
Another bill approved on a first vote on Tuesday gives a hint of what sort of namesakes the council might choose as replacements.
The Diverse Washingtonians Commemorative Works Amendment Act calls for the University of the District of Columbia to create a list by the end of next year of up to 12 Washingtonians “who left positive and indelible marks on American or District culture or history” and ought to be commemorated publicly in the city.
The bill calls for those figures to “reflect diversity of culture, race, gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability status.”
The council also approved legislation inspired by a 1666 treaty between British colonists and Piscataway Indians. Though the terms of the treaty were unfavorable to the Piscataway, it did allow them the unfettered right to hunt, fish and crab.
The bill would restore that right, permitting card-carrying members of two Piscataway tribes to obtain free fishing licenses in the District.