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The racist origin of Chevy Chase and its founder: Why the village's centerpiece needs to go

With the historical significance behind the town's founder, will the centerpiece dedicated to him be taken down?

CHEVY CHASE, Md. — Frances Newlands was born in 1846. He was the son of a Scottish physician. He grew up in Natchez, Mississippi. 

Newlands' father, an alcoholic, died at a young age, and his mother remarried a businessman who had lost his fortune in the depression of 1857. The newly formed family eventually moved to the District of Columbia. 

In 1867, Newlands went to Yale University, and in 1869, graduated from Columbian College – now known as George Washington University Law School - and was admitted to the bar. 

Newlands was elected to the House of Representatives as a Congressman from Nevada in 1893. He went on to become a three-term Democratic senator from the same state in 1903. 

He founded the Chevy Chase Land Co. in the 1890s, which developed the exclusive residential neighborhoods around the circle that sits on the D.C.-Maryland line. It would later become known as the Chevy Chase Village in Maryland, and the neighborhood of Chevy Chase in D.C.

Like many of Newlands' property developments, he intended for Chevy Chase to be a white-only area.

Credit: Library of Congress

Now, Chevy Chase is considered one of the wealthiest areas in the country.

The village is a self-governing municipality located in Montgomery County. The incorporated boundaries of the town extend to East-West Highway on the north, Connecticut Avenue on the east, Bradley Lane on the south and one block east of Connecticut Avenue on the west. 

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The population of Chevy Chase, according to the town's website, is 79.7% White, 8.21% Hispanic or Latino, and 4.68% Black or African American. 

In 2017, Chevy Chase, Maryland had a population of 9,840 people with a median age of 46.3 and a median household income of $173,333. It's become a coveted neighborhood of wealth and prestige, just on the edge of the hustle and bustle of D.C. 

The name of the founder of the village, Francis Newlands, is etched in the stone of a fountain that divides the District and the state of Maryland.

To enter or exit, you have to drive around a busy traffic circle that separates the two – known as Chevy Chase Circle.

Most drivers wouldn't notice the large fountain – a memorial to Newlands – in the middle.

Newlands' ideals became clear to the American public beginning in 1912.

History shows he called for a repeal of the 15th Amendment – the law granting voting rights to African American men. Additionally, he insisted that African-Americans and Jews be precluded.

He openly called for African-American education to be limited to education for domestic and menial work.

Newlands was also known for creating segregated land development plans, a model for segregated suburbs that spread across America. 

In his home state of Nevada, he was seen as the driving force behind getting water to the dry western states.

Newlands died while still in office in 1917.

Credit: Library of Congress

Calls to remove the fountain bearing Newlands name, seen as a nod to his racist past, have rung out over the years.

The fountain at Chevy Chase Circle is considered the legacy of Francis Newlands’ land development efforts. 

It was not the work of anyone from Nevada who wanted to honor their Senator but was merely an effort to beautify the Chevy Chase neighborhood, according to the Washington Post. 

The fountain was designed by Edward W. Donn, Jr. in 1933 and constructed in 1938. The project was funded by Newlands' widow, Edith McAllister Newlands. 

What was then a largely ignored part of D.C. has become a major thoroughfare for commuters in and out of the District from Maryland, driving more attention to the fountain and its origins. 

In 2014, The Washington Post reported a D.C. advisory neighborhood commissioner attempted to change the name, but the debate went nowhere. 

“The story you get is, ‘Once upon a time this great man from Nevada founded the Chevy Chase Land Company and built beautiful neighborhoods in D.C. and Maryland.’ Gosh golly gee,” the D.C. Commissioner Gary Thompson told The Washington Post. “I don’t think Newlands gets a pass because of the times. He helped create the times.” 

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With the recent events in the wake of George's Floyd's death in Minneapolis and racial injustice protests in every major American city, statues, monuments, and markings of figures and symbols of outdated ideals of inequality are being defaced and torn down all across the nation.

In a Facebook post this past week, resident Jesse Gordon renewed calls for the Chevy Chase DC Advisory Neighborhood Commission to rename the landmark and to remove the current plaque that honors Newlands. 

"The Chevy Chase Circle Memorial Fountain is dedicated to Francis Newlands, a former US Senator and the founder of the whites-only, Chevy Chase, Maryland," the post reads. "Join me in seeking change by contacting the Chevy Chase DC Advisory Neighborhood Commissions Office."

Credit: WUSA9

Other residents left comments under the post, either pointing out or agreeing with Gordon's sentiments for removing the memorial.

"He was also anti-Semitic," one resident commented. 

"Thanks for the History lesson...it’s time to make this wrong right," another resident said.

While the racism of Newlands, hidden away in Chevy Chase, has been rediscovered, residents like Gordon are hoping for a change in the neighborhood to show what it truly stands for.

Thousands of memorials, monuments, and markers scattered in and throughout the D.C. area. are dedicated to historical figures and the ideals they upheld and inspired. America is demanding that the ideals behind this monument be struck down, saying it's long overdue. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi spoke to this in a recent letter to Congress:

"Monuments to men who advocated cruelty and barbarism to achieve such a plainly racist end are a grotesque affront to these ideals. Their statues pay homage to hate, not heritage. They must be removed."

RELATED: Three teens arrested for spray-painting racist graffiti on Walt Whitman High School's campus

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