The Alexandria City Council plans to name a new park at the foot of King Street “Waterfront Park,” hoping to end a bitter dispute over whether to honor a founding father who was also a large slaveholder.
The park, which will be along the Potomac River, had been referred to as Fitzgerald Square in city planning documents since at least 2011. But city officials dropped the moniker before a groundbreaking ceremony this year that happened to be held on Saint Patrick’s Day, referring to the site as King Street Waterfront Park and saying its permanent name should be chosen in consultation with the public.
A few officials said quietly last spring that there was concern about the slave-owning past of Col. John Fitzgerald, an aide-de-camp to Gen. George Washington during the Revolutionary War and an early mayor of the Colonial city.
But an Irish Catholic cultural group took the change as an insult to one of its own, and launched petitions and a lobbying campaign to have Fitzgerald’s name restored.
On Tuesday, the all-Democratic council preliminarily accepted a committee recommendation to use the more generic name. The council will vote on the measure after a public hearing Saturday. Council members said that it is expected to pass.
It’s the latest chapter in the ongoing story of how a now-liberal city is grappling with its Southern history. Previous sections included the quiet removal of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s portrait from City Hall, the renaming of a highway that honored Confederate president Jefferson Davis, the end of a tradition in which city workers erected a Confederate flag twice a year, and unsuccessful efforts to remove the “Appomattox” statue from a busy intersection.
Council member Redella S. “Del” Pepper (D), who served on the park-naming committee with council member Timothy B. Lovain (D), said a letter from Maddy McCoy, a historian who runs the Slavery Inventory Database, was the “turning point” for her. The four-page letter included the first names and prices of 46 slaves that Fitzgerald listed on personal property tax and probate records.
“It was very painful to read,” Pepper said. “Of course, we do have streets that are named after people who owned slaves, such as Washington, for example, or Lee. But that is in the past. As we move forward, I think it’s a mistake for us to continue that. I think we have to respect our whole community.”
Hundreds of people sent messages or testified before the committee, expressing “extraordinarily passionate” feelings about whether to use Fitzgerald’s name, Lovain said.
“This wasn’t a case of just owning only one or two slaves,” he said. “This was dozens and dozens of slaves.”
In an online survey this fall, the city asked about the name and whether the park should be combined with a small existing one to the south that already is called Waterfront Park.
Nearly half of the 1,443 respondents said they preferred to name the spot after Fitzgerald. But Alexandria government spokesman Craig Fifer noted that 578 of those responses came from people who did not identify themselves as city residents. He said the city calculated results for Alexandria residents who preferred merging the two parks. Of those respondents, 38 percent chose the Fitzgerald name and 20 percent chose Waterfront, while more than 40 percent chose other names.
“There wasn’t one clear consensus in the survey,” Fifer told the council. He also said, as he had earlier this year, that Fitzgerald Square was never an official name for the space.
The Ballyshaners, a group that organizes Alexandria’s annual Irish festival and local Saint Patrick’s Day parade, called this fall for the city to name the park after Fitzgerald.
Terry Riley of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, another Irish Catholic heritage group, said Wednesday that the decision to drop the name was “hypocrisy.”
“Fitzgerald is being judged ex-post-facto,” Riley said. The city has not questioned the value of its Scottish founders, or the “Scottish Walk” parade, he added, “but when an Irish immigrant is being judged, he’s kicked to the curb.”
The Hibernians are discussing how to protest Saturday’s vote, Riley said.