Descendants of Francis Griffith Newlands have risen to defend the early-20th-century U.S. senator, whose white supremacist views prompted a recent proposal to rename the fountain built in his honor at Chevy Chase Circle.
Seven family members, including three great-great-granddaughters, are urging the D.C. Advisory Neighborhood Commission in Chevy Chase to reject a resolution calling for removal of Newlands’s name from the fountain. They contend that using contemporary standards to judge Newlands’ racial views — which were fairly typical in their time — unfairly discounts his other legislative and civic accomplishments.
“Like many other imperfect yet important historical figures of his time, he should be evaluated fairly, factually and on the basis of his accomplishments and faults,” the family members wrote in a Jan. 23 letter to the ANC. They cite, among other achievements, Newlands’s sponsorship of the Reclamation Act, the 1902 law that began the federal government’s irrigation of the arid West.
Newlands, a three-term Democratic senator from Nevada, founded the Chevy Chase Land Co., which developed the exclusive residential neighborhoods around the circle that straddles the D.C.-Maryland line. The company remains one of the region’s leading real estate developers and property managers.
Newlands wrote in a 1909 journal article that blacks were a “race of children” unsuited for democracy, “requiring guidance, industrial training and the development of self-control.” He called for the repeal of the 15th Amendment, which granted African American men the right to vote.
In December, Gary Thompson, an advisory neighborhood commissioner whose term was about to end, introduced a resolution that called for renaming the fountain. The proposal was tabled after some commissioners said residents had not had a chance to fully assess the idea.
Passage of the resolution would be a completely symbolic act. The fountain, paid for and built in 1933 by Newlands’s widow, is on National Park Service land. That means any changes would probably require an act of Congress.
Still, the matter has sparked lively discussion among residents on both sides of the issue. The debate has also played out on Newlands’s Wikipedia page, where revisions have surfaced in recent weeks, some emphasizing his racial views and others his legislative accomplishments.
The Chevy Chase Land Co., which refurbished the fountain in the 1990s, has declined to comment on the issue. But the seven Newlands descendants, all company shareholders, felt differently. Their letter described Newlands as one of his era’s leading progressive Democrats, who supported women’s suffrage in Nevada years before passage of the19th Amendment. It also pointed out that Newlands graded Connecticut Avenue from Calvert Street to Chevy Chase Lake, clearing the way for Chevy Chase to become one of the nation’s earliest streetcar suburbs.
The letter challenged some claims in Thompson’s resolution, among them that original property deeds in Chevy Chase included covenants barring blacks and Jews. Family members cite a Dec. 14 letter from the Chevy Chase Historical Society that said those restrictions date to the early 1930s, well after Newlands’s death in 1917.
“While [Newlands] did harbor racist views — which we also find offensive — he should not be reduced to a one-dimensional figure, and accounts of his life should be factual and complete,” Janine Johnston, one of the senator’s great-granddaughters, told The Washington Post in an e-mail.
The fountain is not on the agenda for ANC 3/4G’s next scheduled meeting, on Monday. A Feb. 11 post on the commission’s home page by commissioner Carolyn Cook asked for more feedback before the panel decides “whether there is ample interest to hold a special public hearing or revisit the discussion with a possible vote during our regular ANC meeting.”