The inscription on the fountain at Chevy Chase Circle honoring Francis Griffith Newlands is unequivocal: “His statesmanship held true regard for the interests of all men.”
Newlands, a three-term senator from Nevada, founded the Chevy Chase Land Co., which created the posh, exclusive neighborhoods on the Washington and Maryland sides of the circle. He was also an outspoken white supremacist who regarded blacks as “a race of children” unsuited for democracy. In 1912, he called for a repeal of the 15th Amendment that granted voting rights to African American men.
Nearly 100 years after his death, residents in both the District and Montgomery County are debating whether the fountain, built in 1933 and paid for by Newlands’s widow, should continue to bear his name. Those who live in the Chevy Chase neighborhoods say they do not want to sanitize history, no matter how disturbing. But some also don’t want to glorify a person whose views are repulsive to most of modern-day society.
“The story you get is, ‘Once upon a time this great man from Nevada founded the Chevy Chase Land Company and built beautiful neighborhoods in D.C. and Maryland.’ Gosh golly gee,” said Gary Thompson, a D.C. advisory neighborhood commissioner who is pushing to rename the fountain. “I don’t think Newlands gets a pass because of the times. He helped create the times.”
Newlands married a mining heiress and, in the late 1880s, bought 1,700 acres between Woodley Park and Jones Bridge Road. The purchases cleared the way for the Chevy Chase neighborhoods, which were originally linked to downtown by streetcar. In the 1920s, they became two of many neighborhoods where property deeds restricted the sale or lease of homes to blacks or Jews. Such covenants were eventually outlawed.
The fountain is on National Park Service land, which means any changes to the inscription would likely require an act of Congress. A spokeswoman for the Chevy Chase Land Co., which refurbished the fountain in the 1990s, declined to comment on the issue.
But on Internet e-mail groups, in letters to community newspapers, and at a public hearing this month, Chevy Chase residents are grappling with how history should be presented when important figures hold repugnant views.
Thompson, a commissioner since 2007 who will step down in January, first came across Newlands’s story shortly after winning his ANC seat. Back then, he said, there was little support from other commissioners for addressing the fountain issue, so he let it slide.
An amateur Civil War historian, Thompson describes himself as “the kind of guy who always reads the plaques.” While cleaning out his office in preparation for leaving the ANC, he found a 2009 article by Edward Sisson, a lawyer and Chevy Chase, Md., resident who had also proposed that the board rename the fountain.
Thompson decided to wage his campaign. On Dec. 8, he introduced a resolution that called for renaming the fountain “Chevy Chase Fountain.” The measure was tabled, with some commissioners saying the community hadn’t been given a chance to fully consider the idea. It is expected to be taken up in early 2015, after Thompson’s term has ended.
The board of Historic Chevy Chase DC agrees with Thompson that the name should be changed. “It seems like a no-brainer,” board member Charles Cadwell said.
But others caution that judging Newlands by today’s norms is a complicated matter that could call into question the names of countless institutions and landmarks, from Woodrow Wilson High School (during the administration of President Wilson, black federal workers were fired and the Navy was segregated) to the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial (George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are among the presidents who were slaveholders).
“Where does it end?” asked ANC commissioner Rebecca Maydak. “Good, bad or indifferent, our history is our history.”
The Maryland-based Chevy Chase Historical Society took no official position on the fountain. But the group sent a letter to Thompson that said his resolution “presents Newlands in only one dimension, and overlooks many of his achievements,” including legislation establishing irrigation of arid Western land.
The society also noted “the large company of elected officials, business leaders and civic elites who shared [Newlands’s] racist views in the Progressive era.”
Chevy Chase D.C. resident Lanning Moldauer, a psychologist, called the proposed re-naming a prime example of “presentism” — the imposition of present-day attitudes and norms on the past.
“Certainly many of us holding ‘proper’ views today might be seen as insensitive, or even nearly evil, were our views and habits of today (eating meat, chewing gum, preferring partners of a given gender) evaluated by the standards of 2050,” said Moldauer, writing on the Chevy Chase D.C. e-mail group.
He argued against “taking despicable-seeming views and actions out of the context of the time and place in which they lived.”