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Lafayette Elementary School and a park behind it were built in 1929 on land taken by the federal government from a Black family that had lived there for 80 years.
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The bucolic park that stretches out behind Lafayette Elementary School is a popular destination for families, with its playground, spray park and newly renovated rec center serving the largely white Chevy Chase neighborhood around it.
But were it not for one Black family's unwitting sacrifice, neither the park nor the school may have ever existed.
On Saturday, D.C. will attempt to address that century-old wrong by officially renaming the park and rec center after the family whose land was taken by the federal government for the construction of an all-white school that eventually became Lafayette and the park that sits behind it.
The facilities will be renamed Lafayette-Pointer, formally recognizing Captain George Pointer, who as a slave and later a freed man helped build the C&O Canal and whose descendants owned the large plot of land in upper Northwest for 80 years before it was claimed by eminent domain to serve the fast-growing and all-white Chevy Chase neighborhood around it. (The family was paid the equivalent of $200,000, though historians say the sale was forced — and the price below the actual value of the land.)
The renaming, which Mayor Muriel Bowser will attend, comes amidst the broader national and local reckoning with the country's troubled history with racial discrimination and injustice. Activists and lawmakers in D.C., Maryland and Virginia have pushed to change the names of roads, parks and schools that commemorate segregationist figures. Just this week, Langston Boulevard was proposed as the new name for Virginia's Lee Highway, and last month D.C. officials recommended a new name for Woodrow Wilson High School after some students and parents noted that the 28th president was responsible for re-segegating the civil service. Late last year, the D.C. Council authorized the renaming of Lafayette Park to commemorate Pointer.
Courtesy of the National Park Service/
After research into Capt. George Pointer exposed his important role in helping build the C&O Canal, the National Park Service added signage and information about him at a visitor's center.
Courtesy of the National Park Service/
But the push to publicize Pointer and his family dates further back to when local historians Barbara Boyle Torrey and Clara Myrick Green were working on a history of their Maryland community overlooking the C&O Canal. They heard about an 11-page letter written in 1829 by a former slave and canal worker — Pointer — and found a copy in the National Archives. Their interest piqued, they wrote an article on Pointer — and started using genealogy websites to trace his family history and find any living relatives. They found one — Maryland resident James Fisher, 68, a seventh-generation descendent of Pointer's.
At around the same time, Fisher's partner Tanya Hardy was doing similar genealogical research on his family; she was working backwards from Fisher, while Torrey and Green were working forward from Pointer. After a chance connection was made via Ancestry.com, the two historians made Fisher aware that his family history extended beyond Pointer, all the way to the plot of land where Lafayette now sits.
"I had mixed feelings. First was pride, of course. I'm so proud of my family," says Fisher. "And I was upset about it. I discovered that there was a whole community of Black people scattered around in that area and they were all were evicted."
In 2015, Fisher and Hardy organized a family reunion for Pointer's descendants, holding it at Lafayette Park. As the day-long event took place, they spoke to families and neighbors using the park about its history.
"It was a beautiful Saturday," says Hardy. "They were able to hear a little bit of what that place used to be. And it was amazing because every single one of them said, 'Wow, we were always told this land was barren.' So they had no idea that that land was taken from families to build for them."
The emerging revelations about the land's original owners prompted Historic Chevy Chase D.C. — an organization of the neighborhood's history-minded residents — to organize a campaign to formally recognize Pointer and more broadly help unearth the history of formerly Black settlements running Fort Reno to Chevy Chase, most of which were displaced by developers building homes for white families. (Fisher and Hardy are on the organization's board.) A recent effort has focused on removing the name of segregationist senator and Chevy Chase Developer Francis Newlands from a fountain on Connecticut Avenue at the D.C.-Maryland border.
And efforts have continued to highlight Pointer's contributions to the region. In 2019 the National Park Service added signage to its Great Falls Visitor's Center highlighting the critical role he played in building the C&O Canal. For their part, Torrey and Green's research into Pointer and his family became a book published this month, Between Freedom And Equality: The History Of An African American Family, the royalties of which are being donated to Historic Chevy Chase D.C. Torrey says Pointer still deserves more recognition.
"My hope is that eventually the [National Museum of African American History and Culture] will take George Pointer's 18th century letter from the National Archives and put it in their museum," she says.
Fisher agrees; he says he and Hardy have found more documents detailing Pointer's role in helping built not just the canal — but also getting critical materials into Washington for the building of many federal buildings and monuments.
"This man was amazing. This was somebody that's been forgotten. And so the ultimate [thing] is to make sure that he won't be forgotten anymore," says Fisher.
Still, Fisher remains torn about the discoveries that have been made about his family — and the land they once owned in what's now Chevy Chase. He thinks stories like his make a serious case for some form of reparations for many Black families. As for the renaming event on Saturday, which he will attend, Fisher is again of two minds.
"It's a step and an acknowledgment. And honoring not only my ancestors, but the whole community," he says. "But just the thought of me going out there and have to leave because it's no longer family property, it makes me sad. So be it."
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.