Are Some of the Prominent Names From Georgetown’s Past Problematic?

This week, Mayor Bowser’s administration had an incredibly unforced error concerning the problematic histories of several revered historical figures. But in doing so, the adminstration also flagged several prominent names from Georgetown’s history. And even after the immediate controversy passes, the neighborhood ought to grapple with these figures and their role in the suffering of others.

But first, the unforced error. This came with the issuance of a report from the DC Facilities and Community Expressions (DCFACE) working group. This group was created to assess a variety of public assets around the city to determine which of them are named after individuals who participated “in slavery, systemic racism, mistreatment of, or actions that suppressed equality for, persons of color, women and LGBTQ communities and violation of the DC Human Right Act.” This would be done with the goal of removing, renaming or recontextualizing those assets to better reflect the city’s current beliefs and ideals.

One of the sections of the report flagged some iconic DC memorials and monuments, including the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial. The section included them as properties that should be either moved, renamed or recontextualized. Obviously they were not going to either moved or renamed, so a fair reading of their inclusion would be that they should be recontextualized with the addition of a plaque, or whatever, that point out that “hey, they great men also owned human beings, including children.”

But the world is full of people who have no interest in reading things fairly. So obviously Republicans, including Trump, immediately howled that the DC mayor wanted to move the Washington Monument. This was foreseeable from a million miles away. And the likelihood that DC will be able to successfully even cause a few plaques to be attached is basically zero. So it’s perplexing that the Mayor would do something so politically damaging for so very little. She even acknowledged as much a few hours later when the report was stripped of the section concerning the monuments.

But the group will continue to focus on strictly local DC properties. And GM commends them for doing so. (It’s ridiculous, for example, that Wilson High School is named after a president who brought segregation to the federal workforce and forever diminished the wealth and success of many of the families who send their children to that very school today.) And on the preliminary list of properties named after prominent former residents of Georgetown (or, in one case, a property in Georgetown not named after a Georgetown residet). They include:

  • Hyde-Addison School
  • Key School/Key Bridge (not mentioned was Francis Scott Key Park, but it would seem to follow)
  • Stoddert School
  • Jackson School
  • Bell Multicultural High School
  • Foxhall Playground

Some of these are obvious inclusions (heck, GM submitted a recommendation to the group to add Key, for instance), but other are less so. And the report does nothing to include why each name is listed. So GM will do his best to suggest reasons:

  • Anthony T. Hyde was a Georgetown businessman and schools-advocate that lived from 1810 till 1892. Given the time he was alive, it seems likely that he owned enslaved people. But as far as GM knows, he wasn’t a particularly vocal defender of the institution of slavery.
  • Henry Addison was mayor of Georgetown, serving for 18 years total, spread out over two separate periods: 1845-57, and 1859-69. As mayor, he expressed some clearly racist views, including an opposition to the abolition of slavery in DC due to his fear it would entice enslaved people from Maryland and Virginia to flock to the District. GM did not determine immediately whether Addison himself was a slave-owner.
  • Francis Scott Key’s racism is well documented. He said that black people were “a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community.” When he was District Attorney for the City of Washington, he suppressed abolitionist speech and prosecuted a Georgetown resident for possession abolitionist materials. And the second verse of the Star Spangled Banner is a real doozy.
  • Benjamin Stoddert was the first Secretary of the Navy, and before that he was a Georgetown merchant. He definitely owned enslaved people, but beyond that GM could not find any other relevant information.
  • Andrew Jackson was super racist and committed a heinous act of genocide. That’s an easy one.
  • Alexander Graham Bell has strong connections with Georgetown, having lived on Volta Place for many years (the street is named after the Volta Bureau, which he founded). We all know him for having invented the telephone. Less well known is that he was really into eugenics.
  • Henry Foxhall was also a Georgetown mayor, serving from 1819 to 1820. He was also a wealthy foundry-owner. GM could not immediately verify it, but he likely was an owner of enslaved people.

As you can see, some of these are more strong cases than others. But since, again, the report is not stating that all of these names need to be removed, it may be that some of these just call for some additional information. It will be a long road, but GM still supports the needed self-reflection that this effort ought to result in. It’s just too bad it was kicked off with such an incredibly own-goal.

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