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A Battle To Wash Away A Fountain's Controversial Namesake


There are thousands of memorials, monuments and markers in Washington, D.C. They're dedicated to historical figures and the ideals they upheld and inspired. But in the neighborhood of Chevy Chase, there's a fountain honoring a man whose beliefs don't stand the test of time, and some residents want that fountain renamed. NPR's Eleanor Klibanoff reports.

ELEANOR KLIBANOFF, BYLINE: Chevy Chase is one of the wealthiest areas in the country. The population is 87 percent white. To enter or exit, you have to drive around a busy traffic circle that separates Washington, D.C. and Maryland. Most drivers ignore the large fountain in the middle.

GARY THOMPSON: Francis Griffith Newlands, Senator from Nevada - his statesmanship held true regard for the interest of all men.

KLIBANOFF: The engraving on the side of the fountain is read with derision by Gary Thompson, a Chevy Chase neighborhood commissioner.

THOMPSON: It's laughable.

KLIBANOFF: Newlands once wrote, and I'm quoting here, quote, "blacks are a race of children requiring guidance, industrial training and development of self-control. As late as 1912, he proposed repealing the 15th Amendment, the one that extended the vote to all men regardless of skin color. Thompson is leading the charge to get Newlands fountain renamed.

THOMPSON: His views on race weren't just part of the times like, you know, you might say about a local shopkeeper. This guy was the times.

KLIBANOFF: Newlands did more than just write racist tracks and try to repeal constitutional amendments. And active businessman, he also founded Chevy Chase, creating the model for our modern suburbs. Back in his home state of Nevada, he was seen as the driving force behind getting water to the dry western states.

REBECCA MAYDAK: The fountain was built for him because he was one of the fathers of modern irrigation versus a statue.

KLIBANOFF: Rebecca Maydak, another neighborhood commissioner, doesn't want Newlands to be seen as one-dimensional.

MAYDAK: This is our history. George Washington's administration had a policy to, quote, "civilize the Native Americans." It almost led to the annihilation of the Native Americans. So do we now go back and change everything named George Washington?

KLIBANOFF: It won't be easy to rename the fountain. It sits on federal land maintained by the National Park Service and it's on the National Register of Historic Places. Tom Russell is a law professor who knows what it takes to get a name changed. In 2010, he succeeded in getting the University of Texas to rename a building that honored the founder of the Ku Klux Klan in Florida.

TOM RUSSELL: Anytime someone comes along and wants to rename a building because somebody has had a bad idea or sputtered bad thoughts, I actually think that there ought to be some bad acts - criminal acts, terroristic acts.

KLIBANOFF: The building at the University of Texas was named for William Simkins, a longtime law professor who openly bragged about attacking African-Americans and recommended his students do the same. That's the kind of activity that earns a name change, says Russell.

RUSSELL: On the other hand, just because your name goes on a fountain once doesn't mean that your name gets to stay on the fountain.

KLIBANOFF: As Russell points out, that's what chisels are for. Eleanor Klibanoff, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Klibanoff