Descendants of Nevada senator with white supremacist views join debate over DC fountain's name

The Associated Press/February 18, 2015

Washington -- The debate is heating up over the name of a Washington, D.C. fountain built in honor of an early-20th-century U.S. senator from Nevada who had white supremacist beliefs.

Seven descendants of Francis Griffith Newlands are urging the D.C. Advisory Neighborhood Commission to reject a resolution calling for the removal of their ancestor's name from the fountain.

In a letter sent to the council last month, the family contends that using contemporary standards to judge Newlands' racial views — fairly typical in their time — discounts his legislative and civic accomplishments.

"While (he) did harbor racist views — which we also find offensive — he should not be reduced to a one-dimensional figure, and accounts of his life should be factual and complete," Janine Johnston, one of the senator's great-granddaughters, told The Washington Post in an e-mail.

An advisory neighborhood commissioner introduced a resolution to rename the fountain in December. It was tabled by a commissioner who wanted more feedback before the panel decides whether to hold a public hearing and vote on the matter.

If the council does vote to pass the resolution, it would be a completely symbolic act. The fountain, paid for and built in 1933 by Newlands's widow, is on National Park Service land, meaning any changes likely would require an act of Congress.

Even so, the issue has sparked a lively discussion among residents on both sides of the issue. The debate has also been evident on Newlands's Wikipedia page, where revisions have surfaced in recent weeks, some emphasizing his racial views and others his legislative accomplishments.

Newlands was a three-term Democratic senator who once wrote that black people were a "race of children" unsuited for democracy, "requiring guidance, industrial training and the development of self-control." He also called for the repeal of the 15th Amendment, which gave African American men the right to vote.

The Chevy Chase Land Co., which refurbished the controversial fountain in the 1990s, has declined to comment on the issue. Newlands' descendants, all company shareholders, describe Newlands as one of his era's leading progressive Democrats, who supported women's suffrage in Nevada years before passage of the 19th Amendment.

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