In 2009, Bellevue resident Dionne Brown went searching for help. The city was hoping to replace the aging Washington Highlands Library, a homely red-brick structure set into a hill off South Capitol Street. It showed every bit of its five decades, and Brown and others active in a library volunteer group were looking to rally support for a new building.
Brown approached William O. Lockridge, a Democratic member of the State Board of Education and a Ward 8 power broker. She asked for his help.
“He said no,” Brown recalls, and he argued that the library could be renovated for a lower price, with the savings going to fund social service programs.
That’s not an uncommon sentiment in Ward 8, the city’s poorest, where plans for public amenities can become ensnared in neighborhood squabbles and deep-seated resentments. But Brown & Co. succeeded in persuading the D.C. Public Library to construct a new building on Atlantic Street SW. The $15 million 22,000-square-foot building — designed by David Adjaye, a bona fide global “starchitect” — is scheduled to open early next year.
But the politics have persisted — accelerated, in fact, after Lockridge died of a stroke in January and his widow sought to have the library named after him.
To Wanda Lockridge, naming the library after her husband would be a fitting tribute to a teacher, coach and activist on behalf of underprivileged families. “Libraries and education are one in the same,” she said. “Libraries are just another venue where you can learn, study, read. . . . I don’t see it as a separate entity at all.”
But to Brown and an influential coterie of library advocates, the new building would be best named for the neighborhood in which it sits — Bellevue, a middle-class enclave of duplexes and garden apartments in far Southwest Washington, that since 1959 has had the odd distinction of hosting a library bearing the name of Washington Highlands, an area whose boundaries are blocks to the east.
To Brown, the politics are simple: “How are you going to put someone’s name on a building they opposed?”
She has on her side the formal naming guidelines of the D.C. Public Library, a vote of the library’s board, a vote of the volunteer group she leads and a vote of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission she serves on.
But Lockridge, even in passing, is a name that commands respect for the political skills he and his wife shared. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) has backed Wanda Lockridge’s efforts to have the building renamed, as have D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) and some colleagues.
But other power brokers are playing hardball, too. John W. Hill Jr., who chairs the library board and is chief executive of the nonprofit Federal City Council, is threatening to resign from the board should a renaming bill pass the D.C. Council.
“It would be very difficult for me to cut a ribbon on a library that’s named William Lockridge Library,” he said in an interview, explaining that the council “disrespected” the library board by second-guessing its decision. Hill also noted that under city law, no public space can be named for a person until two years after his or her death. “Part of that reason is to allow a chance to really have a full vetting of that person’s full legacy,” he said. “Frankly, there are other people in the community who have had a much more positive impact.”
“No one could question the legacy of Dorothy Height,” Hill said by way of comparison, but Wanda Lockridge said she’s not about to let Hill and others question her husband’s legacy.
“If their argument is that William was not supportive of the library, then my question is: What was [Height’s] contribution to libraries, particularly in Ward 7?” she said. “I believe, and many other people in the ward believe, that William Lockridge is a Dorothy Height of Ward 8. He is that person for Ward 8.”
There are public spaces that already bear Lockridge’s name: a baseball diamond near Oxon Run and the auditorium at Simon Elementary School. The council gave preliminary approval Tuesday to dedicating five blocks of Valley Avenue SE to the memory of Lockridge. But the library would be the crowning tribute.
On Tuesday, council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) agreed to delay the renaming bill for two weeks, saying he needed to “give us all a chance to listen more to the community.”
“It has to some extent divided the community,” he said. “And I am one . . . who listens to what the community has to say.”
Wanda Lockridge says she’ll give Barry plenty to listen to. “We’re not finished with this,” she said. “At all.”