When Joseph A. Solomon heard white supremacists were rallying in Charlottesville, he thought about Magruder Park, much closer to home. Watching debates over Confederate memorials again made him think of the 32-acre site in the Prince George’s County city of Hyattsville, Md.
And the green space was back on Solomon’s mind late last month when he read that a state delegate from Harford County had used a racial slur to describe Prince George’s.
The park hugging the Anacostia River, which attracts joggers, sports teams and dog walkers, has since 1927 borne the name of William Pinkney Magruder, a wealthy landowner and former mayor who donated the land on the condition that it be used for “Caucasian inhabitants only.”
Solomon, who is black and holds a seat on the Hyattsville City Council, wants to rename the park as a way of pushing back against that legacy — and recognizing that Hyattsville today bears almost no resemblance to the mostly white, segregated town of nearly a century ago.
This increasingly progressive 18,000-person city is about 30 percent white, 30 percent black and 40 percent Latino, according to most recent census estimates. “Black Lives Matter” and “Resist” signs are staked in front of many homes and businesses.
“But psychologically, something like a name can still make people feel unwelcome,” Solomon said, explaining why he wants to get rid of the Magruder moniker. “It continues to provide that underlying sentiment that this racism is still acceptable.”
His proposal to study whether changing the park’s name is feasible — and, if so, taking steps to do it — has added Hyattsville to the growing number of jurisdictions across the country debating what’s in a name and who deserves to be memorialized.
In Alexandria, Va., city officials renamed a highway that honored Confederate president Jefferson Davis and angered Irish cultural groups by declining to name a new waterfront park for an early mayor who owned slaves. Washington-Lee High School in Arlington will reopen next fall as Washington-Liberty, and the former J.E.B. Stuart High School in Falls Church, Va., has become Justice High School, following a debate over whether dropping the name of a Confederate general would amount to a costly and ineffective attempt to rewrite history.
On Facebook and community email groups, some Hyattsville residents have voiced similar concerns about Solomon’s effort.
“Why are they trying to erase history?” one resident posted.
“Do not succumb to the PC madness,” another wrote, referring to political correctness. “Hyattsville has been and will continue to be a great inclusive city and community. We don’t need this.”
Mayor Candace Hollingsworth, the city’s first African American mayor, says Solomon is moving too quickly, sacrificing the opportunity for a robust public discussion and thorough reckoning with Hyattsville’s past. Racially restrictive covenants were common in the 1920s and 1930s in the city, which remained largely white and segregated until the 1970s. And Hollingsworth, elected mayor in 2015, said she sometimes sees signs of old attitudes in the way she is greeted and treated.
“While renaming the park may make people feel better, I hope it does not allow us to say, ‘Great, we’ve gotten rid of the name and now everything is wonderful here,’ ” she said.
At a sometimes contentious council meeting last week, council member Shani N. Warner, who is white, also warned against moving ahead too fast.
“I don’t have enough information,” Warner said. “It is quite an act to strip a name from a park, this resource that has been beloved by generations of Hyattsville residents.”
Solomon said public input is a core part of his motion, but that his priority is seizing on momentum that exists today to make changes. His motion will likely be acted on in coming weeks.
“That stain on our history needs to leave, and leave as quickly as possible,” Solomon said. “It’s about the urgency of now.”
Magruder, a resident of Hyattsville, was born in 1856 and died in 1939. He made his fortune in real estate before becoming known for his philanthropic work, according to a 1939 Washington Post article on his estate. He also gave land for a post office building and money for a county hospital.
Gloria Felix-Thompson, president of the Hyattsville Preservation Association, said the association approves of Solomon’s motion but is asking that a plaque be installed at the park providing historical context about Magruder — which Solomon said he supports.
“We shouldn’t lose the chance to educate future generations,” Felix-Thompson said.
Hyattsville in recent years has experienced a revitalization driven largely by its thriving arts community. Colorful murals, restaurants and art studios have replaced once-barren storefronts along Baltimore Avenue. At the same time, city leaders have increasingly adopted progressive policies, including declaring Hyattsville a “sanctuary city” in 2017 and making it the first municipality in Prince George’s to give noncitizens the ability to vote in local elections.
Hollingsworth said she worries about the effect of the economic boom on longtime lower-income residents.
No matter how inclusive they strive to be, hipster coffee shops and trendy restaurants can be spaces where some feel unwelcome or uncomfortable, the mayor said.
“I’ve had residents go into these places and say, ‘Where are the black people?’ ” Hollingsworth said. “It’s not anything the businesses are doing intentionally, but people have to recognize this happens.”
She said she hopes discussion about renaming the park fosters more conversations about how and where people feel welcome in this community, and how to ensure that the city grows more inclusive in coming years.
“Do I feel like I belong in this city where I am living? When I go to businesses in this city, do I feel like they speak to me or know I exist? These are some of the questions that keep me up at night,” she said.
The revelation last month that Del. Mary Ann Lisanti (D-Harford) referred to a legislative district in Prince George’s as a “n----- district” was a reminder, Hollingsworth said, that there are people in power who have “old opinions and old ideas and views about people of color, and black people in particular.”
Prince George’s County Council member Deni Taveras (D-District 2), whose district includes Hyattsville, called it evidence of the “white power base.”
Solomon said the incident is just one example of a person in a position of power showing “a lack of regard for history and a lack of empathy.”
Changing the name of Magruder Park, he added, “is our chance to define our future.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the Prince George’s County Council district represented by Deni Taveras. It is District 2, not District 4.