We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Three African-American activists hurried to the Capitol on the morning of March 28th, 1926. They had heard Congress was considering a bill that would wipe out a community of 370 families in the growing suburbs west of Rock Creek Park. In the small neighborhood known as Reno, black and white residents mixed like a checkerboard.
James Lincoln Neill, a Howard-educated attorney and businessman, led the group that morning. At the door to the committee room, he stopped the chairman of the House District Committee, Ernest Gibson, and made his protest: The black residents were never offered a hearing. The chairman took heed and promised the men they would have a chance to plead their case. This gave the activists time to organize.
They were fighting for 52 acres where African-Americans had made a decent life. Reno was a community with modest houses and churches, clubs, and a thriving social calendar. But white suburbs had recently grown up around Reno, and many of the people moving to them sought racial exclusivity. Real estate developers were relentless and zealous in their efforts to provide it.
The freedoms of the post-Civil War Reconstruction era lasted longer in the District of Columbia than they did in many other parts of the nation, but an upset election brought Southern white power to Washington in 1913. President Woodrow Wilson’s administration slowly instituted segregation in D.C., and Southern congressmen pushed segregationist practices on a city that not only couldn’t vote for president, it couldn’t elect its own government.
It was during D.C.’s 1920s economic boom that color lines grew clearer and homes became a vehicle of white wealth and black dispossession. The federal government grew, and at the same time racist sentiment increased.
Neill’s harried intervention with the congressman, recounted in the Washington Tribune, was the beginning of a forgotten fight for civil rights in the middle of the creation of modern Washington. In 2017, it can feel like gentrification is a racially tinged contest over space that runs like a live wire through every interaction. The story of Reno reveals a critical part of the history behind this dynamic.
Today “Fort Reno” is synonymous with a long-running DIY summer concert series and the iconic water towers on its land. Residents take Reno’s sports fields, grassy hills, and the Alice Deal Middle School as essential and wonderful community resources. Few stop to think why they’re on that particular spot.
Location is everything. Fort Reno Park is the highest point in D.C. and sits on the west, upwind side of the city. It is near the intersection of two ridgelines. One of those ridges provides a dry route with a steady grade from Georgetown. The other separates the escarpment that bounded the original city of Washington from the flatter piedmont north and west.
Because the ridges intersected there, so did roads leading from Georgetown’s port to the plantations of the upper Potomac. With roads came travellers, and so a Scottish immigrant named John Tennally built a tavern there, founding Tenleytown. In the 1790s, travellers coming to Washington from as far away as the Ohio frontier might stay overnight, re-shoe horses, and drink.
Just north of Tenleytown was Reno, with its views from Rock Creek to the Potomac—a tempting site for a wealthy man to make his estate. A Treasury Department official named Giles Dyer purchased the land in the summer of 1853 and dubbed the 62-acre property “Oak Lawn.” His tax records reveal a comfortable plantation with orchards, tenants, a 16-room house, and at least five enslaved people: Alfred, Sarah, Dallas, Mary, and Rose.
Giles Dyer died only three years later in 1856, leaving his widow, Jane, to run the homestead. Then, in July 1861, Confederate forces humiliated the Union at the Battle of Bull Run just 30 miles from D.C., the Union’s capital. It was the first major battle of the Civil War, and slave-owning Maryland was only staying in the Union by force. Officials realized they needed to fortify Washington.
Union engineers suspected, correctly, that a Confederate invasion would cross the Potomac north of Great Falls in the piedmont where the river was narrower and flat. This made the two roads that went north and west from Tenleytown strategic risks. The Dyer farm, with its high, long ridge flanking the two roads, was a perfect spot from which to rain shells on any Confederate invaders.
By 1862, a mess of ramparts, stockpiles, and tents blanketed the Dyer land. The Union named the facility after General Jesse Reno, who died that year. Fort Reno was massive, demanding civilian labor. Former slaves, freed in D.C. just that year, found work maintaining the fort. Escaped slaves, who the Union could declare seized enemy property, a technicality that prevented them from being recaptured legally, also worked there.
Alcione Amos, a curator at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum who has studied the early residents of Reno, says, “The forts offered security, shelter, food, and work. By 1864 an estimated 50,000 African-American refugees had moved to Washington.”
After the war ended, the government sold the fort for scrap. In 1866, the Dyers returned to ruined land. Their wealth in plants, buildings, and enslaved people was all gone. Court records show that when the family tried to divide the property in 1867, they discovered that Giles Dyer’s will was invalid. They settled the case by hiring a real estate team named Onion & Butts to subdivide the property into 600 or so lots, each of them roughly 25-by-100 feet and facing 33-foot wide streets. The developers called it “Reno City.”
Property sale records suggest that white speculators bought most of the lots, and some built houses to rent to African-Americans starting new lives in Reno. A number of African-Americans could also afford the $12.50 it cost to buy a lot, and they owned their homes.
Amos has studied one early black landowning family, George and Ariana Dover. George had been owned by the Peirce-Shoemaker family (of Peirce Mill in Rock Creek Park), while Ariana was a slave for a Georgetown merchant. They acquired three parcels in the southwest corner of Reno and built two houses for their large family. Amos notes they lived in Reno “well into the 20th century.”
Reno stayed sleepy for years. Most African-Americans migrating to D.C. were not so interested in living in a village, preferring more central neighborhoods like Shaw and Foggy Bottom, where there was more work. They were drawn to the District because it offered unparalleled opportunities for black people. From the Reconstruction era onwards, black residents could hold well-paying civil service jobs, from low-level clerkships to political appointments.
“Federal salaries were better and more stable than any other African-Americans could earn, and so patronage and the attendant paychecks were critical to the high property ownership and relative affluence of Black D.C.,” says Eric Yellin, a professor of history at the University of Richmond.
African-Americans were unlikely to assume political power, in part due to the District’s govermental structure. From 1874 to 1967, a panel of three presidential appointees governed D.C., one of whom was an Army Corps of Engineers officer.
But the District was nonetheless desirable, and it became an oasis as white supremacists rolled back the rights of African-Americans across the South, and those who could flee did. Many Southern blacks had no choice. One such man was Thomas Walker.
Born in 1850 to a white father and enslaved African-American mother, his master raised him to be a literate house slave. He did well professionally in Selma, Alabama, after emancipation, but at the end of reconstruction, a lynch mob forced him to flee in disguise. He eventually settled in D.C. and took a Republican political appointment.
The economic base created a strong black middle class and landmark educational system centered on Howard University. There were no Jim Crow streetcars, but private life in Washington was by no means integrated. One block of a street might be white, but turn the corner, and it would be upwardly mobile black residents. The overwhelmingly black poor tended to live in substandard housing fronting the alleys behind primary houses.
The white population also grew with the federal government after the Civil War. Streetcars, new federal workers, and a flush of wealth induced a wave of suburbanization in all four quadrants.
In the late 1880s, a secretive group of investors started buying land north of Dupont Circle, across Rock Creek, and out to the Maryland border east of Reno. The papers gossiped that this “California Syndicate” would pay high prices for seemingly worthless property in a straight line along what is now Connecticut Avenue NW.
When an investor blabbed to the press, the California Syndicate revealed itself as the estate of California senator and mining baron William Sharon, headed by the senator’s son-in-law Francis G. Newlands, who later became a congressman and senator for Nevada.
Newlands named his premier development Chevy Chase, and the land holding company the Chevy Chase Land Company.
The California Syndicate’s bizarre purchases followed Newlands’ vision. He subscribed to two beliefs common in his day. First, that the wealthy would always favor the west side of cities, where prevailing winds meant that the smells of burning coal, manure, and sweat did not pollute the air. Second, that the wealthy would flee neighborhoods when stores, industry, the poor, and non-whites moved in.
So, he believed, cities grew westward until they hit a natural barrier, like the Potomac, where they would go north. This lack of stability bothered homeowners. Newlands and his partners decided to skip past that pattern by building a long road and, at the end of it, what developers called a “high-class” subdivision. That road is Connecticut Avenue NW, leading to Chevy Chase, Maryland.
Developers for the wealthy distanced themselves from their peers by focusing on long-term investments financed by wealthy or international investors. They called themselves “high class developers” or “community builders.” Rather than sell rural plots of land as-is, they promised complete, planned packages of stable neighborhoods and ready infrastructure.
They also ensured exclusivity by requiring, in the deed to the land, that only a single-family detached house costing a large amount of money could be constructed. The Chevy Chase Land Company did not include explicit bars against non-white people, known as racial covenants, but the mandated cost of the house made it impractical for all but the wealthiest non-white people to buy the land.
Newlands and his partners further maintained control through a system of interlocking corporations run by the same people. If someone wanted to buy a lot in a Chevy Chase subdivision, they’d have to go through the Thomas Fisher brokerage, controlled by Newlands’ deputy, Edward Stellwagen. The brokerage would screen buyers, sell property, insurance, and provide mortgage financing. Later, the partners would add Union Trust Bank to manage outside investments.
Planners at the time had decided on a hybrid street plan for the District, with gridded streets and curvilinear parkways. Newlands—by then an extremely absentee congressman—helped eminent landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Sr.’s firm get the job to make that plan.
But the vision was still too commercial and not grand enough for many, so in March 1901 Congress convened a team to fully reimagine the District. This team would become known as the McMillan Commission.
Its youngest member was Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. He proved to be one of the strongest voices in the room, securing his reputation independent of his father. The McMillan Commission’s 1902 design is famous for laying out the Mall as a tree-lined network of commemorative pavilions surrounded by government offices, not dissimilar from what exists today.
Their vision extended into the still-rural suburbs as well. They drew a network of parks crisscrossing the the hills, including a parkway called Fort Drive that followed the Civil War lines of defense.
Olmsted singled out Fort Reno’s high point as a special place. He proposed a vast circular park, thousands of feet in diameter to secure those same views Giles Dyer and army engineers coveted. Civil War nostalgia made the hill with amazing views an appealing historical site.
The McMillan Plan was a shocking and new vision of monumental urbanity. It was hugely popular in D.C. The problem was, it was obscenely expensive and therefore had little support in Congress. Still, it was something for civic beautifiers to aim for when they looked around their neighborhoods.
White residents of Tenleytown certainly saw the big park at Fort Reno as an opportunity. Already in 1899, a group of property owners that would later become the Friendship Citizens Association had eyed some of the area for clearance. In March 1901, the Evening Times reported that the FCA was working with the D.C. Commissioners to purchase the land, which would “wipe out the colored settlement on Reno, where the houses are small and detrimental to surrounding interests.”
In the years following the McMillan Plan, Tenleytowners agitated for clearing Reno to make a park, while developers of nearby subdivisions flacked the big circular park in their brochures. One of those developers, Senator Thomas Patterson from Colorado, even submitted a bill to create a Fort Reno military park. Like the McMillan plan, though, it cost too much.
Instead of condemning the existing community and land for a park, the city built the Jesse Reno School, a four-room facility that is now incorporated into Alice Deal Middle School. It became a cornerstone for Reno, located in the area most heavily populated by African-Americans.
If Reno’s residents, who lived on the high land, were worried about this plan, I have not found paper evidence of it. Instead, Reno grew considerably. More and more houses went up on the narrow streets. Methodists, Episcopalians, and Baptists set up church missions. Residents organized black chapters of mutual aid societies and social clubs. Stores opened up to serve the population.
Those who settled there described a tough but meaningful life. Samuel Hebron, a homeowner, told his story to Congress in 1926: “I went out there 20 years ago. I could not get anything but a hollow out there, 20 feet deep. I labored hard and worked for it in the city, and walked in when I didn’t have the [street]car fare.”
Reno was a rural quirk in the growing capital. African-American high society did not acknowledge Reno much, other than through churches and sports leagues. When black papers referenced Reno, they often had to explain where it was. Well-educated African-Americans, it seemed, still had better prospects in mid-city neighborhoods like Shaw.
The unusual freedom black Washingtonians once had faded as emancipatory fervor declined. “The national Republican party had begun to lose interest in even the minimal support for black leaders it had offered since the 1890s,” Eric Yellin explains. The last vestiges ended in 1912 after Southern Democrats took control of both the White House and Congress for the first time since the Civil War.
As Yellin’s book Racism in the Nation’s Service documents, President Woodrow Wilson’s appointees wasted no time in segregating lunchrooms, bathrooms, and offices in federal buildings. High-ranking black officials found themselves demoted, educated men and women shifted into low-level work because of their race.
Reno kept growing. In the new political climate, the Friendship Citizens Association again expressed their fears that less affluent and less white neighbors threatened their real estate values. This was particularly true for a North Carolina-born man named Luther Derrick, a house painter who had settled in a large Victorian house steps from Reno.
For Derrick, the presence of black people was an even greater threat. An ardent segregationist, he allied with Tenleytown natives like John Chappell when he became president of the Citizens Association, turning its attention to segregated streetcars, anti-miscegenation laws, and prohibition.
Newlands died in 1917, and Edward Stellwagen took the Chevy Chase Land Company through a boom before he contracted meningitis. Debilitated, he delegated many of his responsibilities to employees.
Harold Doyle, a charismatic and relentless salesman who had been with the Fisher brokerage since he was 17, became a leader in the company. He and his business associates acted as strawbuyers, aggressively buying up land in Reno, as they did elsewhere in the area.
Meanwhile, African-American leaders across the city held out hope that President Warren G. Harding’s administration would restore their position. But Yellin notes there was no political will. A race riot in D.C. in the summer of 1919 persuaded many whites of segregationists’ claim that the races could not live together. President Wilson’s changes were permanent. Black papers like the Washington Tribune show a shift from optimism to anger.
Because D.C. had no elected government, the city followed the Feds. The Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, which managed the city’s parks, made some of the first moves to introduce Jim Crow to the District, posting “whites only” signs in Rock Creek Park and also segregating the seating at the Lincoln Memorial’s dedication in 1922. African-Americans were relegated to the back of the ceremony.
The memorial’s success and the suburban growth helped to bring attention back to plans and parks. The Board of Trade, a liberal D.C. business group that held enormous influence over the city’s unelected government, lobbied for the McMillan Plan alongside citizens clubs, who emphasized parks and schools in the new neighborhoods.
It was hard to persuade Congress to spend money on a huge network of parks for people who couldn’t vote.
Success came when the Washingtonians got the backing of the American Planning and Civic Association. This national, progressive organization developed a new strategy. In Washington, they created the Committee of 100 on the Federal City to put a civic face on the Board of Trade’s agenda. To get national support, the APCA’s executive director, a woman named Harlean James, crisscrossed the nation in her car in 1923 pitching Washington as a model of planning.
The strategy worked. Congressional archives show a government bombarded with letters demanding a dignified, leafy Capital. Congress established a National Capital Park Commission composed of agency heads in 1924, and District officials turned the commission’s attention to Reno by November 1925, in its sixth meeting.
That November, the board voted to clear the houses and families of Reno and convert it to a park, but didn’t fund it. Clearing a town was expensive: $1 million, they estimated, which was more than a third of what the Lincoln Memorial cost. So they asked Congress to pay for it separately. Within weeks identical bills were in the House and the Senate, endorsed by the District Commissioners, and quietly scheduled for hearings.
If James Neill or his two colleagues, Thomas Walker and Thomas Johnson, hadn’t gotten word of a notice in the newspaper, the mixed-race enclave in Reno might have been demolished shortly thereafter.
Instead, the men found out what was happening. Neill and Johnson rushed to Capitol Hill that morning in March, 1926. They stopped the chairman of the House committee in a hallway and contacted the Senate as well and won their opportunity to fight for the community in public hearings.
The Senate heard them first, so the activists returned to the Hill to face off against supporters of the Senate’s clearance bill on the afternoon of June 2, 1926. The transcript presents a tense mood. James Neill led opponents and Reno’s black residents. Thomas Fisher Company’s Harold Doyle rallied a coalition of white neighbors and officials.
Proponents of the conversion started on a bad foot when their heavyweight supporters didn’t show up. Army Engineer D.C. Commissioner J. Franklin Bell and Riggs Bank president Charles Glover could have had a lot of influence. Instead, the task of explaining the plan fell to its designer, Melvin Hazen, head of the city’s Surveyor Office.
“The District has in mind acquiring the subdivision for several reasons.” Hazen began, referring to Reno. “First, to wipe it off, so the street plan can be developed in harmony with the general plan for the District. They want also to have an additional reservoir.” He continued, “They also want a high school, and this is a plan we got up more in detail of what we would like to do,” referencing the plan approved by the Park Commission.
Hazen had been interested in urban planning for some time. He came from a planting family in Catlett, Virginia, about 40 miles outside of the District, but moved to town at the turn of the century. He became the District surveyor in 1908, carrying out the plans to expand the city’s system of streets and regulating land sales. He used his position to push for the McMillan Plan alongside Charles Glover in the 1910s. He called for the purchase of parkland, backed zoning earlier than most officials, and attacked “misfit subdivisions” like Reno.
He also took up questionable causes, like demolishing the largely African-American-populated dwellings that faced the alleys behind white neighborhoods. They were generally substandard and without plumbing. It was too convenient, opponents noted, that alley clearance would remove the poorest African-Americans from the white neighborhoods without much thought to what would happen to those people when they lost their homes.
Hazen made the first official endorsement of clearing every block of Reno. In 1914, he recommended the city condemn all of the 1869 grid, re-subdivide it according to Olmsted Jr.’s plan for streets, and then sell the remainder to developers. Courts at the time were skeptical of eminent domain, and his plan was without a clear public purpose and need, so the idea fell flat.
But in the less egalitarian atmosphere of 1920, Hazen brought the idea back. This time he leaned into suburbanites’ need for recreation space, bringing back the park proposed in the McMillan Plan.
The Friendship Citizens Association, by then led by segregationist Luther Derrick, embraced the plan and set up a permanent committee to study it. In 1922, the Board of Trade endorsed his plan, making it a serious proposal.
Thirteen years after he first proposed it, Hazen faced a skeptical audience in that Senate committee room in 1926. He repeated: “It is an ill-devised, ill-shaped subdivision, that you cannot do anything with unless you just wipe it off.”
Next to speak was Proctor Dougherty, a businessman from Chevy Chase D.C. with political ambitions. He read from the D.C. Commissioners’ endorsement of the Reno clearance bill. His short testimony was just a show of support, duplicating the official statement of the Chevy Chase Citizens Association, of which he was a member.
A May 26th, 1926 letter from Harold Doyle to Dougherty holds a clue as to why Dougherty came at all. In the letter, available in Dougherty’s papers at the Historical Society of Washington, Doyle says the clearance was a way to “eliminate the blot on the whole neighborhood,” and reveals a secret meeting of “important citizens” a few years earlier. In his letter, Doyle listed several bankers in attendance at this meeting: Charles Glover, Edward Stellwagen, Charles J. Bell (cousin of Alexander Graham), John B. Larner, John Joy Edson, as well as “many others.” In the letter, Doyle caters to Dougherty’s political ambitions.
Stellwagen’s presence in this backroom meeting of bankers and other prominent Washingtonians sheds considerable light on the participation of the Chevy Chase companies, as he was president of Doyle’s brokerage and the Chevy Chase Land Company.
At City Paper’s request the Chevy Chase Land Company, which is still owned by the descendants of Francis Newlands, asked the Chevy Chase Historical Society to search the company’s private archives at CCLC’s office for material related to this meeting and other events in this story. Both parties said they found no relevant source material for events in question, and the CCLC declined to comment further.
Glover’s involvement in the meeting is even more remarkable. Few people had the lobbying power that Glover did. Riggs Bank counted high-ranking officials and almost every U.S. president as customers. For Dougherty, this was a chance to get closer to power and shore up the image of Chevy Chase, D.C. where he owned a home. A few months after his testimony, President Calvin Coolidge appointed Dougherty to be D.C. Commissioner, managing the government of the city.
But in the hearing over Reno in 1926, he and his allies floundered. After he spoke the conversation turned to what Doyle had told Dougherty was “some little opposition.”
Neill took the floor and he wasted no time in getting to the substance. “They … say that this is an unsightly place, that it is a blight upon the District. Why is it a blight? Simply because negroes occupy it. They want a white settlement there.”
Senator Royal Copeland of New York, objected, noting the many valid “municipal” reasons Hazen had outlined. “Now let us see, Senator,” Neill retorted. “What we want is the chance to live as the other people live.” He brought up the reasons people had moved to Reno. “Some of them lived in huts and hovels, but their forefathers bought them and paid for them. Some of them have improved them, have nice, up to date, convenient modern houses, and they do not want to give them up.”
Neill called out Chevy Chase Land Company for being behind the scheme and pointed out its vast vacant holdings around the neighborhood. “Just see, gentlemen, how preposterous this proposition is. They come in and ask for a school and a playground, with a thousand acres around this place where they can go and take it.”
Thomas Walker, the black politician from Selma who had escaped lynching, followed Neill. “These people out there do not own the land for speculation.” In contrast, he said, “The men who want this thing will reap a big harvest when they drive these people out of there.”
Walker and Neill were well versed in their subject. Walker had earned a law degree from Howard University and had started selling real estate in Reno by 1897. Neill and his brother Lewis were also buying and selling in Reno by the 1920s.
And Neill had faced off against the Chevy Chase companies before.
Neill was born outside Nashville, Tennessee, probably in 1866, and graduated from Fisk University in his hometown. He moved to the District during its prosperous time to work in the Pension Bureau, where he advanced from an entry level position to clerk. He attended Howard Law School, and used his degree to organize several business ventures.
The gilded age real estate speculation extended to African-Americans, so Neill sought to try his hand. In collaboration with a salesman, Alexander Satterwhite, and another lawyer named Charles Cuney, he secured financing from an affluent doctor, Michel Dumas. The four black men conceived of a restricted, high-class subdivision like Chevy Chase, only it would be open to African-Americans.
Using a white straw buyer, they secured a 31-acre subdivision along what is now Wisconsin Avenue and Western Avenue NW, cut from Chevy Chase land. Called “Belmont,” newspaper articles show the residents of Friendship Heights and Somerset eagerly watching its progress, anticipating another exclusive subdivision like theirs.
When they discovered who’d bought it, though, the white neighbors became distressed. “White Cap Threats in Washington Suburb,” the New York Times reported on July 6, 1906. Richard Ough, the ad hoc leader of the concerned citizens, announced in the Washington Times: “You may call the organization we are forming White Caps, Ku Klux, or what you will,” referring to the protagonists of Thomas Dixon’s 1905’s bestseller, The Clansman, later adapted into Birth of a Nation.
The Belmont Syndicate managed to broker the sales of 20 lots to fellow African-Americans, but it fell apart when they went to close the sales. The terms of purchase allowed other parties, two of whom were Chevy Chase Land Company and the Union Trust Bank, to deny the release of land.
Alleging the Belmont Syndicate was a shakedown, the trustee parties did not release the lots. Satterwhite bailed in 1907, selling his shares to white speculators and damaging the Belmont Syndicate’s claims to the land title. Unable to guarantee sales, Belmont defaulted and Dumas began a string of lawsuits which ended in a stalemate over the 20 lots.
Neill returned to practicing law, married, and had a daughter. But he was changed by what happened at Belmont. Already in October of 1906, he openly questioned the views of Booker T. Washington, the dominant African-American political figure at that time. Like other well-educated African-Americans, Neill felt that Washington’s strategy accommodated white supremacists in politics, carving out meager rights in court and the marketplace. By 1908, he had joined the circle of radical black activist William Monroe Trotter.
Born to a well-connected Democrat father and with a Harvard degree, Trotter spoke for a business-friendly form of integration. His ideas would be considered conservative in 2017, but at the time, his vision of race mixing disturbed even progressive whites. He refused to soften his public stances to cater to caucasian allies, so he simply took no money from them, whittling down his personal wealth to support his activism and his paper, the Boston Guardian.
“Trotter knew and had empathy for the people whose lives were being ruined by Wilson’s administration,” Yellin notes. Trotter came to D.C. frequently to lobby for the rights of African-Americans, and Neill’s obituary notes he accompanied Trotter on seven visits to the White House, including one where Trotter and President Wilson got into a shouting fight.
James Neill’s daughter Elizabeth Banton, who lived to be 103, said in an interview earlier this year that Trotter stayed at the Neill’s house at 906 T Street NW when he was in town. Neill came to know Thomas Walker, and Reno, through the Washington chapter of Trotter’s organization, the National Equal Rights League.
Walker and Neill were both elites who had tasted something like equality. They lived through a decline in their own rights, as politicians in both parties saw less and less need to defend them. They understood how precious a place like Reno was for African-Americans.
Even as Neill and Harold Doyle eyed Reno, Belmont’s 20 lots remained in limbo. Court records at Maryland’s state archives show the Thomas Fisher Company finally settled with Michel Dumas and other parties on October 31, 1925. The lots returned to the Chevy Chase Land Company.
The Park Commission approved the Reno project the next month, and the Senate hearing over Reno came only eight months later.
Beyond Neill and his two colleagues, the residents of Reno spoke. Thornton Lewis, president of the Reno Citizens’ Association, called out the low sums the bill offered for their land. “We could not buy a chicken coop for that amount of money,” he told Royal Copeland. The elderly Lucinda Harper piled on, turning to her crippled husband and asking for the right to die in her own house. “Would it be fair to turn me out?” she asked. “We haven’t got long to stay here.”
Sensing that the hearing was going badly, Doyle called the National Capital Park Commission for support. Its new director, Ulysses S. Grant III, sent a deputy across town, an army engineer named Carey Brown.
Brown brought a book of the McMillan Plan before the Senators, and laid out Fort Reno’s importance in the Fort Circle park project. “The acquisition of Reno, if Congress sees fit to authorize its acquisition, is a great step forward in carrying out the park plan of the District, as it has existed since 1901,” he said.
Appealing to the decades-old vision was not enough. The activists and residents had given Copeland pause. The senator from New York wondered out loud, “Where do the colored people go? What plans have they?”
“No plans,” Neill replied. Fewer and fewer places were open to African-Americans as real estate agents and residents worked hard to sharpen the color lines of the city.
Copeland stumbled to respond, adjourning with the insistence that Congress would act without prejudice. After rehashing their arguments at a few more hearings, both the House and Senate bills lost their traction and expired.
The desire to eliminate Reno did not abate. Not at all, as the white-only subdivisions surrounding Reno grew. With Dougherty now a D.C. Commissioner, the white residents of Chevy Chase and Tenleytown found a closer ally in government. The will to remove the neighborhood expanded from reformers and developers to homeowners and school parents.
These groups had a new tool. The progressives who created the Park Commission succeeded in expanding its power in 1926, becoming the National Capital Park and Planning Commission, or NCPPC. Still trying to make D.C. a model of planning, they installed preeminent planners who supported them. Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. was one of them.
In 1927, Grant III ramped up NCPPC’s new mission with a professional staff of the sons and nephews of famous planners. Charmingly odd, but blunt, the Austria-educated grandson of the Union general developed a reputation as an effective pragmatist in the Army Corps of Engineers and through a number of other positions he held in D.C.
His staff assessed where the city was growing, adapting the McMillan plan in a string of reports that guided NCPPC’s transformation of D.C. One report suggested reviving a parkway following the circle of Civil War forts. Another proposed establishing a system of recreation centers across D.C., including one at Reno. They then presented these concepts to the commission to be enacted.
NCPPC knew the plans for Fort Reno were racially motivated, as the transcript of their February 1928 meeting reveals. The planners met to discuss plans for the “Fort Reno Project” developed by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and the staff planner, Charles Eliot II, after Olmsted personally visited Reno.
Carey Brown presented three options, casually noting that the package of school, park, reservoir, and parkway would demolish many homes. The new Engineer Commissioner, William Ladue, questioned whether it was worth $2 million—one of the priciest NCPPC projects. He was skeptical they needed so much land.
The commission settled on a general statement of support with further study. After the vote, Grant III interjected, “There have been many schemes to get the colored settlements out of there, and this is merely one way of doing it.”
Ladue barked back, insisting they should “not go into a big scheme, which is nothing but a land development scheme, with the idea of selling off afterwards what they did not want.”
On December 21 of that year, the District started making offers for the property it wanted for a school, now Alice Deal Middle School, holding the threat of condemnation over owners’ heads. While the city had originally wanted just a few squares, by 1928, they were insisting on a huge parcel covering, according to Neill, 20 homes occupied by African-Americans.
Harold Doyle owned land in the school area. He and other white landowners sold quickly. In January 1929, Thomas Johnson appeared with a few allies before a Senate hearing on the D.C. budget to protest the project.
The transcript shows both Democrat and Republican senators challenging District officials. Royal Copeland, the senator who dominated the 1926 hearing, led the school board officials to admit their plan would displace a population. “There are certain human rights that must be taken care of,” he said. “I should want to be very certain we are not causing tremendous inconvenience to that section of our population.”
Kentucky Republican Frederic Sackett was more blunt. “Is this a part of that effort to get it away from the colored people who live there?” he asked a panel of D.C. officials.
With this positive outcome, Neill contested the condemnation proceedings that made way for the Deal School in court. In a motion to dismiss, Neill leaned on the hard questions in the Senate, submitting the transcripts, dog-eared and marked up. “Racial prejudice, and not the public good … is the underlying motive,” he wrote in a defiant motion to dismiss.
The court was unmoved. The 1925 law that authorized the school explicitly called for it to be built in Reno. The District took possession of the land for Deal on June 6, 1930. The 1930 report of the D.C. School Board stated that project was delayed due to “obstructive tactics.”
Neill and the Reno residents did persuade one person: William Ladue. When NCPPC considered Reno again in 1929, the Engineer Commissioner took the floor and said, “There was a delegation of colored friends from this area who protested to the Senate Committee. They asked some pretty harsh questions. … It raises the general question of the operations of the government being directed toward eliminating their homes.”
Ladue’s comment afforded Reno one of the few breaks it got. Fellow commissioner Grant III proposed to only acquire vacant lots on the western side of the community, and this proposal passed. The residents of the community had more time. NCPPC made offers and bought property throughout the 30s, but only condemned one house in Reno before 1937–and that to open the roadway in front of Deal.
When NCPPC started making offers the white absentee landlords who controlled most of the property sold.
As the churches, clubs, and stores sold, the Reno that had so much potential less than a decade before withered away. The impact spread beyond the neighborhood’s boundaries. Smaller black settlements out west on Chain Bridge Road NW and up north on Broad Branch Road NW, each about a mile away, lost their churches and stores. Contemporary interviews, available in the papers of sociologist E. Franklin Frazier at Howard University, show a flow between the three communities in terms of church attendance and residence, but it was only a matter of time until African-Americans in these settlements moved out.
When a landowner in Reno did sell, records show NCPPC let residents rent—some for years, others for just weeks. In the areas on the eastern side, excluded from purchase in 1928, the city paved the streets and put in water mains. Assuming Hazen’s plan would eventually come to fruition, some homeowners stopped maintaining their properties as they once did. Landlords cared even less.
As a result, the neighborhood fell into disrepair. People who remember the last bits of Reno remember it as a slum. It was a slum—one created by the government.
White neighbors continued to press for clearing the last corner out through the 1930s. In July 1938, Harold Doyle wrote to NCPPC’s staff director, proposing the commission use “slum clearance” to remove residents. There was, he wrote, “no good reason” to reserve this small pocket “for the use of colored.” They would “scatter” out to Benning Road NE.
That September, NCPPC voted to add the rest of the land that was once Giles Dyer’s farm, and later the town of Reno, to the park. World War II slowed the last purchases, but the commission pursued the project until they evicted the last residents in 1951. The city closed down the segregated Reno School.
By that time, almost everyone who had fought over Reno was dead. Oral histories at the Washington Historical Society say that most of the remaining residents moved to what were then the African-American neighborhoods, like LeDroit Park and east of the Anacostia to areas like Deanwood.
The men who conceived its demise fared well. Following Proctor Dougherty, Melvin Hazen became a D.C. Commissioner, serving from 1933 until his death in 1941. After retiring from the Army, Ulysses S. Grant III led NCPPC through the beginning of urban renewal. Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. cemented his influence, founding the American Society of Landscape Architects and shaping the form of suburbs through a seat on a committee, under President Herbert Hoover, to promote zoning across the country.
James Neill did not live to see the end of Reno. His brother sold his last property to NCPPC in 1930, and James died in 1931 at 65. The Baltimore Afro-American memorialized him as “a strong opponent of federal segregation.”
His daughter Elizabeth lived to be a centenarian. She graduated as valedictorian from D.C.’s Dunbar High School, went on to graduate Phi Beta Kappa from Wellesley College outside Boston, and earned another degree from the University of Chicago. She married a Tuskegee Airman—a member of the elite African-American pilots who fought in World War II. The couple settled in Michigan, where he was from, and she lived there until she died this past August.
Of the institutions that served Reno’s residents, only St. George’s Episcopal Church re-established itself. Its building sits on 2nd Street NW in Bloomingdale and counts Reno descendants among its parishioners.
On the old ground a few remnants remain, mostly on the southeast corner that was demolished last. Not far from the Fort Reno stage, where neighbors take their dogs off their leashes, are a few fire hydrants in the middle of the field. Among the trees, some foundations and patches of pavement stick out of the ground. Five buildings survive. Three are duplexes, numbered 4814-4822 Nebraska Avenue NW. They stand askew from the modern road. Another is a brick building at the corner of 41st and Chesapeake NW, built in the lag of the 1930s, which may be renovated for the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission soon.
The last one is the Reno School. Neglected for years, the city declared it a historic landmark and restored it in 2014 as a wing of the Alice Deal Middle School.
Neil Flanagan is an architectural designer and freelance writer who grew up one block south of Fort Reno.
This article has been updated to clarify the location of CCLC’s archives.