As markers honoring segregationists come down across the country, those who live near Hazen’s namesakes say they want a more suitable moniker for the park and trail. Neighborhood leaders and lawmakers are asking the National Park Service to recognize someone else.
Ludlam said he has researched the enslaved people who worked the land north of Connecticut Avenue and found the neighborhood is filled with stories — but Hazen’s isn’t one to celebrate.
“History matters,” Ludlam said. “It makes a difference today.”
Though Hazen didn’t make the list of name changes that a committee recommended to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) last year, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said she supports renaming Melvin Hazen Park and has requested the change.
Norton called Hazen, who was elected president of the D.C. Board of Commissioners in 1933, an “arch segregationist” who used a neighborhood once occupied by 400 Black families to “engage in a kind of urban planning all by himself.” The decision wasn’t just racist but, in an era before D.C. home rule, also undemocratic, she said.
“It has to do with who controls,” Norton said. “Nobody asked the White people who lived here . . . nobody asked the Black people.”
Norton, who wrote the National Park Service about the name change last month, said she wants to take advantage of Democratic control of the White House and Congress to remove the names of racists from D.C. landmarks. Because Melvin Hazen Park was named through an administrative decision of the Park Service, Norton said the change wouldn’t require legislative action.
The Park Service acknowledged it received Norton’s letter but didn’t respond to requests for further comment from The Washington Post.
The park joins a number of landmarks targeted for re-christening in Northwest Washington, including a Chevy Chase fountain named for Francis G. Newlands, a racist senator who died in 1917, and Woodrow Wilson High School.
Neighborhood leaders say they are on board with the Hazen name change. The Advisory Neighborhood Commission passed a resolution in support of the change in November that also laid out Hazen’s 50-year career in Washington.
He started in government service as an axeman in 1889, mapping woodlands outside downtown D.C. as the city grew beyond its original street plan. He became D.C.’s surveyor in 1908 before being appointed to the Board of Commissioners — the body that controlled the city before home rule — and died of a heart attack in 1941 at age 73. A Post obituary hailed him as a “City Father” and noted he collected photos of famous horses.
During his time as a surveyor, Hazen championed the destruction of a Northwest D.C. neighborhood that stood in what now is Fort Reno Park, according to Norton and the ANC resolution. He advocated for destroying Black residents’ homes to support new development and parkland.
Hazen’s message, and the racism that motivated it, was unmistakable, according to proponents of the name change.
“It is an ill-devised, ill-shaped subdivision that you cannot do anything with unless you just wipe it off,” Hazen said of the Reno neighborhood in a 1926 Senate hearing.
When a senator asked who lived in the neighborhood Hazen sought to demolish, Hazen said it was occupied “mostly by colored folks.”
When asked if the neighborhood was consulted about the plan, he responded: “The property owners were not particularly consulted.”
The neighborhood resolution said “the name Melvin Hazen does not represent the kind of community which we feel we are and for which we strive to be.” It continued: “Given the central role of Melvin Hazen in the destruction of the Reno community, we feel that his name is the very antithesis of our values.”
Monika Nemeth, a member of the ANC, said the resolution had no opposition.
“It was time to make a change,” she said. “I don’t think anyone stood up and said, ‘No, no, no, Melvin Hazen was a great guy. We have to keep park the way it is.’ ”
Neil Flanagan, who detailed the history of Reno in a 2017 article for the Washington City Paper and helped the commission research its resolution, said Hazen’s efforts were part of the structural racism that undergirds many D.C. neighborhoods. He said it’s difficult to determine the extent of Hazen’s role in Reno’s demise.
“This is a treasured park, and I think people are learning about this dark side of this man,” he said. “They want their communities to feel less tainted.”
When one name goes, another must take its place.
Ludlam said he favors Catawba, the name of a grape possibly first cultivated by enslaved people on a vineyard near the Hazen trail. The grape became the “cornerstone of American viniculture,” he said.
Flanagan said he isn’t wedded to any particular choice. He said he hopes the city’s forgotten history emerges as outdated signs are taken down and replaced.
“It’s important also to dig up these good names,” Flanagan said. “Even better than changing the name for me is understanding these parts of D.C. history that disappeared.”