About 250 fourth and fifth graders at Lafayette Elementary School sat listening patiently to a story that many of them couldn’t fathom. They learned that just outside their door, a small community of Black landowners had been evicted from their property nearly 100 years ago to make way for the very school under their feet — a school for white children only. It was a message calmly and humbly told to them by a direct descendant of one of these evicted families.
“We lost a lot. When the family breaks apart, it’s just not as strong,” James Fisher explained to the children at a special assembly on Feb. 11. Fisher is a 7th-generation direct descendant of Capt. George Pointer, a man born enslaved in 1773 who purchased his own freedom at age 19. It was Pointer’s granddaughter who first bought land along Broad Branch Road, where for 80 years the small but thriving Black community lived and farmed on land where Lafayette Park now sits. They were evicted in 1928 to build the school and park.
After the meeting, students who are members of the S.P.A.R.K Club (Students Planning A Revolution of Kindness) decided to start their own letter-writing campaign, joining with Historic Chevy Chase DC in asking the DC Council to rectify the wrong by renaming the park and putting up historic signage to honor the dispossessed Black families.
“I used to be proud to live here,” a student named Syllin wrote in a letter addressed to DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson. “I was shocked when I learned the horrifying and shameful history of this land. Our school got a chance to meet a descendant of George Pointer and hear about how much his family lost, both in money and in community … WE do NOT want the history to be forgotten or repeated.”
More than a dozen letters carefully handwritten in pencil, some digging indignantly into the paper, were addressed to Mendelson, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, and Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon T. Todd. They were forceful but polite, and result-oriented. “Put up a historical sign so this unfortunate part of history is not forgotten,” a student named Chloe urged Mendelson. “Thank you for listening to our ideas.”
“The effort to rename Lafayette park and recreation center and to put up signage has really engaged the Chevy Chase DC neighborhood,” said HCCDC Board Member Tim Hannapel, who has led the organization’s grassroots activism and educational effort. The campaign included a petition signed by more than 550 local residents urging a public acknowledgement of the racially motivated displacement.
Lafayette teachers had invited Hannapel to speak to the children, and he brought along Fisher and Tanya Hardy, another family member who has done genealogical work uncovering the family’s dispossession, and its subsequent unspooling of strong family ties.
Also in attendance was Barbara Boyle Torrey, a historian who is working on a book about the Pointer descendants and their continued displacement. Along with her co-author, Clara Myrick Green, she published a scholarly research article in 2016 in Washington History that told the history and accomplishments of the family over a period of more than 200 years, including the sordid eviction by eminent domain in 1928. It is titled, “Free Black People of Washington County, DC: George Pointer and His Descendants.”
“I am a kid who cares about issues,” wrote Penelope, a student who came up afterwards to the panel of speakers. She asked whether a documentary could be done on the story. Her letter pleaded for justice. “ My school, Lafayette Elementary, was built off land stolen from black landowners in order to make an all-white neighborhood. All I ask is to rename Lafayette Park to Lafayette-Pointer Park and to put up a historic signage. P.S. I also think this would be a good election issue (happy-face drawing).”
“I am … mortified to learn that our school was built on stolen land,” another of the letters said. A fifth grader, Charlotte, said dryly, “We just learned the story behind the land that our school is built on, and it is not a good story.”
Hannapel this week wrote to Mendelson to urge the Council not to delay a vote on the bill too long, and attached copies of the children’s letters. The proposed legislation to rename the park (and the recreation center now being renovated) to Lafayette-Pointer Park and Recreation Center was introduced in December by Councilmember Todd after it won unanimous support last July from ANC 3/4G. It was on track to be considered soon, until the COVID-19 pandemic hit and brought about the suspension of normal operations, likely pushing off its consideration until the fall.
“We certainly understand, but we are hopeful that the bill can be in the first group to be considered when the Council re-convenes in the fall,” Hannapel wrote.
But perhaps Evvie, another Lafayette student, said it best, pushing for a solution that acknowledges that while you can’t change history, you can change the future. “It would be an honor to have this park renamed Lafayette-Pointer Park.”