Hyattsville’s institutional role in racist policymaking is being brought into sharper focus.
Last week, City officials received a report on the city’s history of Jim Crow-era segregationist policymaking and land-dealing. They also began debating a resolution that would lay out a process to explore renaming Magruder Park. The sponsors of the measure say the park’s namesake, William Pinkney Magruder, was a white supremacist, noting he donated the parkland to the city with conditions that only white residents be allowed to use it.
Hyattsville’s history of white supremacy was detailed before City Council last week by Hyattsville Community Development Corp. Executive Director Stuart Eisenberg. It was part of a presentation reviewing his work on the Mapping Racism project, which seeks to document and map properties subject to racially-restrictive covenants in Hyattsville.
Eisenberg noted that white supremacy was policy for Hyattsville’s government for much of the 20th century. That is, in large part, because many of Hyattsville’s early 20th century landowners and politicians – including Magruder – were themselves white supremacists. We know this because they took legal and contractual steps to exclude African-Americans and other non-white racial and ethnic minorities from public life. Its government officials did this by passing segregationist laws in City Hall. Its earliest landowners followed suit, inserting segregationist clauses into property deeds as the city’s lots were subdivided and sold off to new suburban homeowners. The clauses – called racially-restrictive covenants – persist in the property records to this day, unenforceable only due to judicial rulings. Racially-restrictive covenants began to proliferate in the city’s property deeds in the 1920s after Otway Zantzinger began to sell land in a large section of Hyattsville Hills with such clauses inserted.
According to Eisenberg’s research, Hyattsville proposed and adopted a segregation ordinance in 1913. The measure was proposed by Hyattsville Councilor Guy Lattimer. Shortly thereafter, the city attorney was directed to draft a segregation ordinance based on a similar set of laws approved in Baltimore. It was approved unanimously without discussion. These actions, collectively, denied African-Americans the ability to generate inter-generational wealth within the borders of Hyattsville for decades.
He also noted in early 1920s, a Ku Klux Klan organization planned a parade in Hyattsville. The mayor provided a permit, but Eisenberg said residents protests forced the group to abandon their plans. Instead, they leafleted Hyattsville from an airplane.
Additional research shows just how pervasive white supremacy was in the Route 1 corridor of the 1920s, an era in which Hyattsville and Mount Rainier are booming.
During this time, Hyattsville and Mount Rainier had some of the most-active KKK chapters in Maryland, according to masters research done by George Washington University’s Felix Harcourt in 2009 (download). The Hyattsville Klan was the second-oldest in the sate. Together they boasted hundreds of members and organized almost convention-like vacations to Chesapeake Beach.
The Klan was also very active in Hyattsville and Mount Rainier politics during the organization’s 1920s-era heyday, according to Harcort’s paper. Their influence was such that, in 1923, Hyattsville Mayor James “Frank” Rushe had to fight off allegations the klan had established a “supergovernment over his town.”
Research available from Mount Rainier’s archives, based upon a trove of Klan records found in a home in Mount Rainier, indicates numerous elected officials were present at Klan meetings throughout the 1920s. In 1925, they organized a July 4 celebration in College Park’s Berwyn neighborhood that attracted 25,000.
The renewed interest in Hyattsville’s official legacy of segregation and white supremacy also coincides with proposals to rename Magruder Park. In 1927, William Pinkney Magruder, also a former mayor of Hyattsville active in politics during the 1920s, donated much of the land upon which Magruder Park now sits for the benefit of the town’s “caucasian residents.”
At last week’s meeting Ward Five Councilor Joseph Solomon introduced a measure that would lay out a process to consider changing the name. It was introduced with six additional co-sponsors, more than enough to pass an up-or-down vote. Mayor Candace Hollingsworth was not one of the cosponsors, and wants to take a more deliberative approach toward not just renaming the park, but addressing racial justice in Hyattsville on a structural level. Right now, she said efforts should focus on documenting the legal tools once used to perpetuate white supremacy to then try and find a way to permanently excise them from the record books. Hollingsowrth has noted that as long as these clauses stay on the property records, their enforceability is subject to the whims of the judicial system.
“I think it is great we are in this moment, especially with the Mapping Racism program, that we are trying to see where Hyattsville is situated. We know the folklore. We know the oral history of the city,” said Hollingsworth. “But to have something documented, that speaks about this history and the patterns – even in the context of gentrification and who is allowed to reap the benefits of that – those are all things I believe we should truly reckon with by getting involved with the details of how those things occurred.”
Solomon’s measure, though it has broad support from City Council, was subject to some debate over process, appropriateness and utility.
“Changing the name is easy. That is easy for someone to feel comfortable about the community they live in,” said Hollingsworth, later during the meeting. “I am not so afraid of white supremacy that it won’t pass when we get to part two.”
Ward Two Councilor Shani Warner said she needed more information before deciding, but expressed concern the debate could divide council.
“I think it would have a particular power like the 1913 decision that we could do something positive or unanimous to get me to the point where I feel like we have the grounding to move forward with that,” said Warner during the meeting. “It is quite an act to strip a name from a park.”
Solomon, responding to concerns his measure was too prescriptive, emphasized his measure does not bind Council to any final outcome.
“The fact that this council has chosen to take this matter on demonstrates a willingness to take on issues that are difficult,” said Solomon. “We have gotten bogged down on process on an item we essentially all agree on, and that says we should seek input from the community.”