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Looking around Lafayette Recreation Center in Chevy Chase, James Fisher admits he feels something deep. “Pain in knowing that it was in my family—and that it was taken away,” he says. Fisher, who is African-American, is seeking recognition for his ancestors, who owned land here from the 1850s until they were pushed out in 1928 to guarantee that Chevy Chase would develop as a pristinely white D.C. neighborhood.
He is also trying to elevate a remarkable ancestor named George Pointer, who rose from slavery to manage a precursor to the C&O Canal and captain boats that ferried building stones to early Washington. Despite these accomplishments, histories either overlook or even ignore Pointer’s life. Fisher aims to correct this.
He has found significant support around Chevy Chase, where residents are motivated by the shock of revelations that treasured neighborhood parks like Lafayette and Fort Reno are products of deliberate efforts to segregate D.C. A new group called the DC History and Justice Collective has a goal to remember the displacement and end the celebration of those involved, starting with renaming Woodrow Wilson High School.
Both Fisher and the DC History and Justice Collective (H&J) see their goal as revealing a hidden past. Fisher views it as staking a claim in American history. The activists want to educate the public on what was lost in making parts of the city whiter.
According to Fisher, records show that his ancestors—the Harris family—first settled along Broad Branch Road NW around 1850. Over the next 80 years, the family divided the large property to form a family compound of five or six houses. “As the family grew they built more houses, so each family had a house,” explains Fisher’s partner, Tanya Hardy.
Maps from 1860 to 1890 show this expansion. Now, on one side are tennis courts and an aging recreation shelter. A newer splash pad and a wide variety of play structures occupy the other side of the hill.
That is because, in 1928, the National Capital Park and Planning Commission acquired the land. At the time, the agency usually offered homeowners little choice but to leave, and would threaten to use eminent domain. The only things that survived from that period, Fisher and Hardy believe, are two enormous oak trees.
After learning of his connection to the site from local historians Barbara Boyle Torrey and Clara Myrick Green, local historians researching Pointer, Fisher was stunned and felt a need to reclaim this newfound family history. So in 2015, he hosted a family reunion in the park.
The presence of that much dark skin in Chevy Chase, Hardy says, brought out strange behaviors in park regulars. “They were kind of shocked—but we took the opportunity to explain why we were here,” she says.
That form of education is what Fisher wants to continue, even when he’s not on hand to do the explaining. The District is replacing the existing recreation center building, and Fisher and Hardy feel the construction is an opportunity to conduct archaeological research on the site, and also to install an exhibit that tells the story of Pointer and the Harris family.
He has found backing with two local groups. The first is Historic Chevy Chase DC, a local history group, and the second is H&J. Both look to an extensive exhibit installed in the Reno community’s school, now a part of Alice Deal Middle School, as an example of what they can do.
Fisher would like to go further, and rename the new rec center building after Pointer, the man who made such a substantial black landholding possible.
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Pointer was born into slavery around 1773 and died free in 1832. Pointer is not a new discovery, but unlike the free black man who helped survey the District, Benjamin Banneker, he does not have a famous name. Fisher wants to correct that.
Pointer’s life story is known because he summarized his remarkable experiences in an 11-page letter he wrote to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company in 1829, when that project threatened his riverfront cottage.
In his letter, he narrates how he was rented out to the Patowmack Canal, an earlier scheme to open the Potomac north of Georgetown to commercial shipping. He bought his freedom by 19, and by 23, he was an engineer for the canal. With boats he either owned or captained, he transported stone from nearby quarries to the young city, likely contributing to the construction of the White House and Capitol.
Today, ruins of Pointer’s cottage at Lock 6 of the C&O Canal remain—unkept and unmarked. Worse still, an exhibit at the National Park Service visitors center at Great Falls presents a composite character of a free black canal worker, using material from Pointer’s 1829 letter verbatim. “That hurt me more than anything else,” Fisher says.
Fisher thinks a first good step in recognizing Pointer would be for the exhibit at Great Falls to acknowledge him as a specific person. Further on, he and Hardy would like to see Pointer’s cabin along the C&O Canal restored and interpreted for the public.
Pointer’s is a name that his biographers, and Fisher, think Washingtonians should see more frequently. DC History and Justice has a name they think high school students should see less: Woodrow Wilson.
H&J is an informal association of about 20 locals, with Tim Hannapel, James Zogby, and Judith Ingram forming the group’s public face. Their ambition is to acknowledge the displacements that made Upper Northwest a white enclave. Woodrow Wilson played a central role in what happened there. Under that southerner’s presidency, federal leaders dismantled the exceptional civil rights protections in D.C., and ended opportunities for African-Americans in the civil services.
Crucially, after Wilson, homeowners and developers found a government increasingly willing to enforce segregation, even removing African-Americans from their neighborhoods. One of the most dramatic incidences of this happened at Fort Reno—a story City Paper chronicled last year. Wilson High sits directly across Chesapeake Street NW from the destroyed community.
“I knew there was something up here,” Ingram said in an interview in the park. What she didn’t know was how the park was part of a campaign to segregate D.C., beginning with Wilson.
Ingram says that the City Paper article spurred her to study Wilson’s involvement. She connected with Hannapel, a graduate of Wilson, and began a word of mouth campaign to change the name.
Neither Fisher’s effort to recognize Pointer nor H&J’s plan to rename Wilson have encountered opposition so far. At a fractious meeting about the redesign of Lafayette’s rec center on July 11, when Fisher gave brief remarks, he was greeted with applause.
Fisher has found bureaucratic sluggishness a bigger obstacle. He says the DC Department of Parks and Recreation, which manages Lafayette’s facilities, has been unresponsive. (DPR declined to comment at this time.) He says the National Park Service has been better, acknowledging that the display at Great Falls needs to change, but the branch overseeing C&O Canal has shown less interest in protecting the ruins of Pointer’s cabin.
Compared to exhibits at Lafayette, Ingram admits that changing the name at Wilson could be challenging. So, they are ready to build support slowly through education.
“The playbook is there,” Ingram says, referring to the community process that replaced the name of Benjamin Orr, an early mayor of Washington and a slave owner, with that of revered DCPS principal Lawrence Boone on an elementary school in Fairlawn.
Fisher sees these incidents in context. “This displacement led to a procedural way to legally take land—and illegally take land,” he says. He noted that this activity was of a piece with mortgage redlining and other forms of housing discrimination that persist to this day.
Ingram agrees. “It’s a cause that should interest everyone in Washington,” she says.