When retired lawyer Edward Sisson in 2008 proposed changing the name of the Francis Griffith Newlands Memorial Fountain in Chevy Chase Circle, he thought it would be a quick process.
After all, Sisson told The Wash, Newlands was a “really vicious racist.”
But the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly.
An Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3/4G resolution pushing for the fountain to be renamed, stalled in 2014, and was not re-introduced until this year, after the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
In Chevy Chase, a Washington suburb, the fountain has become a bellwether issue amid a nationwide reckoning over race.
Before becoming a member of Congress, Newlands was a developer who founded the Chevy Chase Land Company, which has been a dominant force in northwest Washington for over a century. Newlands also was a founder of the Chevy Chase neighborhood.
“He basically created the concept of an all-white Northwest Washington,” Gary Thompson, a lawyer and former ANC 3/4G commissioner, told The Wash.
Newlands, who later represented Nevada in the House of Representatives and then the Senate, “really didn’t believe in a multiracial democracy,” William Rowley, a Newlands biographer and retired history professor at the University of Nevada Reno, said.
Newlands’ “white plank” for the Democratic platform in 1912 made a case for the repeal of the 15th amendment — which gave African-American men the right to vote — and an immigration ban on people not “of the white race.”
“I believe this should be a white man’s country,” Newlands said, “and that we should frankly express our determination that it shall be.”
“He definitely did have extreme views for a Democrat outside of the South,” according to Rowley, and the plank was not adopted.
Newlands died in 1917. Fifteen years later, Congress authorized a memorial fountain in Chevy Chase, which still stands today.
The National Park Service manages the fountain, though it stands entirely within the District.
Reckoning with a founder’s legacy
Five years after Sisson, the retired lawyer, sent his letter to ANC 3/4G, Thompson took a look.
Thompson, then an ANC commissioner, says he was “shocked and appalled and disturbed” by Newlands’ past and brought it up with his fellow commissioners.
“The feeling at the time was, ‘Well, I don’t know. I don’t think we want to get into that. Nobody even goes inside that circle anyway,’” Thompson said.
So he set the paper aside.
Thompson says he was looking through his files as his term ended in late 2014 and rediscovered the paper. So he introduced a resolution calling for the fountain to be renamed.
It was met with opposition. Sisson, who proposed the name change, recalled the debate.
“I was getting arguments about [how] we can’t destroy our historical past and blah, blah, blah, and blah, blah, blah,” Sisson told The Wash. “And I was just amazed.”
Though he thought he had secured the four votes necessary to pass the resolution, the resolution died after a motion to table it was introduced and supported by four ANC commissioners, Thompson said.
“The pitch at the time was, ‘Gosh, there’s just so much to think about here, we should table this and consider it at a later time,’” Thompson said.
Thompson recalls being told that “we’re not going to table this forever.”
‘A first step in healing’
Lisa Oakley, a Chevy Chase psychotherapist, told The Wash that she did not know about Newlands or the fountain until Thompson’s push to pass his resolution in 2014.
Oakley said that she and a group of Chevy Chase residents formed a group called Chevy Chase for Racial Progress and urged followers to sign a petition and email ANC 3/4G commissioners about changing the fountain’s name.
More than 2,000 people have signed the petition as of this week.
Chanda Tuck-Garfield, the ANC 3/4G commissioner who represents the same district Thompson represented, said she “worked with the commission to update and modify” Thompson’s resolution with historical information and other research. That took the form of a resolution calling for the National Park Service to remove Newlands’ name from the plaque on the fountain and create a historical exhibit about Newlands and discrimination.
It was unanimously approved on July 27.
Tuck-Garfield told The Wash that the resolution was a “first step in healing our historical past.” But she’s also focused on the future, pointing to a neighborhood racism task force that is set to unveil its recommendations next month.
The ANC’s neighbors in Maryland echoed the ANC’s position on the fountain just two weeks ago when the Board of Managers of Chevy Chase Village also voted to urge the National Park Service to remove Newlands’ name from the fountain.
Months earlier, the Newlands-founded Chevy Chase Land Company wrote in a press release that “should the community vote to rename the fountain, we wholeheartedly support their decision and commit to supporting the necessary steps required to make the change.” The announcement came at the peak of protests against George Floyd’s killing.
“It seems pretty straightforward,” Oakley said, “in that nobody really wants it there and it doesn’t really represent what our community is about. And I think there’s sort of, like, a consensus on that. But the actual process of getting rid of it is what seems so cumbersome.”
In recent months, residents put up a sign with a quote by John Lewis, the civil rights leader and congressman who died in July, and made a memorial for Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the supreme court justice and liberal icon who died Sept. 18.
NPS has stated in the past that it is committed to telling the complete story of Newlands. Rock Creek Park superintendent Julia Washburn said during a July 27 ANC meeting that “We have made the decision that we do want to proceed” to create wayside exhibits explaining the history of Newlands and the fountain.
In the meantime, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., and Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., have introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives that, if it were to become law, would order Bernhardt to remove the plaque and concrete parts of the fountain with Newlands’ name.
Sharon Nichols, a spokeswoman for Holmes Norton, told The Wash in an email that she expects to see support in Congress for the resolution “because it’s pretty simple: Newlands, the man being honored with the plaque, was a segregationist.”
“Most House Democrats will be on board,” Nichols wrote.
The Wash reached out to the National Park Service on Sept. 21 to request an interview with a spokesperson to discuss the fountain. After The Wash sent specific questions on Sept. 27, the spokesperson said they would not be able to respond before Tuesday’s deadline.