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Magruder renaming: Rorschach on racism, remembrance

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Posted on: January 1, 2021

By Paul Ruffins 

Between Oct. 1 and Nov. 15, the City of Hyattsville invited residents to submit suggestions for renaming the city’s major park. The Hyattsville Life & Times (HL&T) has analyzed all 830 submissions. They provide a fascinating mind map into local thinking about our nationwide debate over race and remembrance.

Recent conversations about renaming the park began in February 2018, after Stuart Eisenberg, a columnist for the Hyattsville Preservation Association, revealed in these pages that the park was originally gifted to the city on racist terms.  

Former mayor William Pinkney Magruder gave the park to the city in 1927 via a deed that said the park was to bear his name, and to be for the use of white residents only. Such racially restrictive covenants, now illegal and unenforceable, were common at the time.  

A later research memo that Eisenberg shared with the city, in August 2020, suggested that Hyattsville City Councilmembers, rather than Magruder, may have written the restrictive  requirement. The memo also indicated that the Hyattsville Community Development Corporation, which Eisenberg directs, is doing further research on the Ku Klux Klan’s influence in the community at the time.

Back to the park; suggested names seemed to fall into six broad categories.

1) The usual suspects, bitter comments and inside jokes 

There were many nominations for well-known Maryland activists such as Harriet Tubman (7 votes), Frederick Douglass (1) and Elijah Cummings (3), and for national political figures such as President Trump (3) and Barack and Michelle Obama (7). 

Some suggestions, like Pandering (2) and Virtue-signal Plaza, dismissed the whole renaming process as an exercise in political correctness. 

There were also some sly jokes, like the suggestion to honor Black cartoonist Aaron Magruder (2), along with the comment, “Similar name — more righteous dude.” Parky McParkface received six nominations, in an obscure reference to a 2016 survey in Great Britain soliciting names for a $300 million robotic arctic exploration vessel. That survey yielded 124,109 votes for Boaty McBoatface, the winning name.

2) Those time forgot 

The names Piscataway (1), Nacotchtank (2), Tutelo and Saponi Park (1) commemorate the native peoples who lived nearby and along the Anacostia River. Wannas Park (1) was proposed to honor a local Piscataway leader named Wannas, who was known as ruler of all the chiefs.

Adam Francis Plummer (2),was born enslaved in Upper Marlborough in 1918, and came to Riversdale Mansion when he was 10.  He kept a remarkable diary, from 1841, when he married, to his death in 1905. In 1927, his daughter, Nellie Arnold Plummer, published a detailed account of slave life in Maryland, based on his observations.

3) Favorite sons and daughters 

Many people proposed local folks like Mary Prangley (3), Hyattsville’s first female mayor, and Candace Hollingsworth (9), its first Black mayor. Coach Patrick J. Collier (4) was president of the Boys and Girls Club for many years. However, when you include his creations, Kermit the Frog (6) and Big Bird (1), as well as muppets generally (4), puppeteer Jim Hensen (38) came in a big winner, with a grand total of 49 — the second highest tally of all. 

 4) Our hopefully unified hometown 

Many respondents argued that they simply didn’t want to rename the park for a person. There were 65 votes for some variant of Hyattsville Community/City/Central/ Park. Hope Park and Unity Park were both popular. One comment read, “If the objective is to represent the community, let’s not enshrine the name of any one individual.” Another said, “Naming things after people is risky, there’s always a chance that some ‘dirt’ will be uncovered about them later on, leading to yet another name change.”

5)  Magruder: pro and con

The most historically detailed comments seemed to come from the 46 people who wanted to simply keep the name Magruder Park. They made three arguments: 

Leave it as it is. Stop trying to change everything. It’s been Magruder Park for more than a hundred years.” (The name has only been in place since 1927.) Or, “I grew up with this name, and it’s only being changed so some rich liberals can pretend to ease their conscience.”  

Don’t “erase history. We should use it as a way of showing how far we’ve come, with people of all colors enjoying the park together.” 

Another commented, “We cannot rewrite history nor should we try. Are we to rename Washington, D.C., because George Washington had slaves? To my knowledge, William Pinkney Magruder did not.”  The writer continued, “Magruder gave away a lot of land … for a hospital, a church and a library … To my knowledge only one gift bears his name. That seems a small thing compared to his benevolence.” 

Magruder is innocent 

Several people referred to the October article in this paper, which reported on research suggesting that city council members may have proposed or drafted the racist covenant. Another person flatly stated that Willam Magruder had been defamed, saying, “In the many, many other land transfers he participated in during his lifetime, the park transfer is the ONLY ONE that had the racist clause. This points not to Magruder, but to the City Council itself, at that time heavily influenced by the KKK, as the most likely cause of the insertion.”  

Editors’ note: the research that we reviewed in October suggests that Magruder was less of a segregationist, in his real estate business, than some of his contemporaries. However, we think it likely that Magruder well knew that the city park bearing his name was to be for white residents only. In the deed by which he gave the land, the words “for the Caucasian inhabitants only” immediately follow the words “to be known as the WILLIAM PINKNEY MAGRUDER PARK.” Segregating parks was common in Maryland at the time.

6) The people’s choice for a new name  

According to our tally, there was a clear and overwhelming favorite. The renowned African-American painter, art historian and longtime Hyattsville resident David Driskell received 208 votes. Driskell taught at the University of Maryland for over 20 years. He died in April, 2020, of COVID-19, at the age of 88. Tellingly, in this anonymous poll, Driskell received most, if not all, of the comments in which writers identified themselves. One person noted that Driskell was his  grandfather.  Another, Andre’ Taylor, wrote  that Driskell’s story and connection to the Arts District made him the most “appropriate and responsible” choice. 

When the HL&T contacted restaurateur Mike Franklin, who had enthusiastically endorsed changing the name to David Driskell Park, he said, “It all fits. Driskell was a consummate painter and an internationally known expert on African and African-American art. It’s time that he’s fully recognized right here.” 

You can read the complete poll results and comments at www.hyattsville.org/namethepark

Note: It’s possible to count the suggested names and comments listed on the site in slightly different ways. Proposed names appear in strict alphabetical order by first name, and variations on a name are not always grouped together. For example, David Driskell Park and Driskell Park are separate entries, with Donald Moltrup Park (14), after Hyattsville’s longtime fire chef, and Donald Trump Park (3), listed between them.

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