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Posted at 7:32 AM ET, 02/25/2009

Do You Know About Malcolm X Park?

By Gina Acosta

Moving to Washington from the absolute Middle-of-Nowhere in Upstate New York a few weeks ago, I felt a certain urgency to find every bit of open space I could in the District. So I was delighted when a yoga teacher in my Logan Circle neighborhood told me of a wonderful little city getaway called Malcolm X Park.

“It’s got huge trees, and it’s built into a hillside, with the most wonderful cascading waterfalls in the summer,” she said. On Sundays, she noted, people come to the park for drumming circles.

Oddly enough, I couldn’t find the park on any city maps.

Jogging with my husband a week later, we landed at 15th and W Streets, where, lo and behold, there stood a hillside park with magnificent trees, and what looked to be cascading waterfalls, empty in the cold weather.

But wait. “This isn’t Malcolm X Park,” I said to my husband, puzzled because the sign read “Meridian Hill Park.” All came together when a good friend told me to ignore the sign and all the maps. The fact is, she said, everyone in Washington knew the park to be what it was: Malcolm X Park, a name acquired during the riots in Washington in the late 1960s.

As I jogged back there another recent morning, the weather warm enough to lure robins to bob in the browned grass, I stopped in front of a large bronze statue of one of our notoriously bad presidents, James Buchanan. Peering into the turquoised face of this unremarkable leader, it hit me:

What the hey was James Buchanan doing presiding over this park, which sits in the shadow of Howard University and is squarely in a part of Washington that is overflowing with rich African American history?

With all due respect, that statue just doesn’t belong there. Buchanan was pro-slavery: He lobbied a fellow Pennsylvanian, Supreme Court Justice Robert Cooper Grier, to vote with the majority in the Dred Scott case, an infamous ruling that held that Congress couldn’t exclude slavery in the western territories. Buchanan’s push to uphold slavery earned him the denunciation of no less than Abraham Lincoln, who feared that Buchanan and the pro-slavery forces in the government would try to nationalize slavery.

Am I alone among the many visitors to the park to be thoroughly offended by the statue? Am I alone in finding that the ambiguity over the park’s name amounts to a long and distinctly painful insult?

As a teacher of English, I am frequently reminded about the great power of language, how our words magically create reality. So often, we are what we are because of what we hear about ourselves in the words of other people. Or we are what we tell ourselves we are. We gain pride and respect about ourselves, and about our surroundings, from the labels we give to all kinds of things — including the public spaces in which we live.

We are living through one of the most momentous periods of history. We have seen an African American man with a provocative name defy all the odds and step into the most powerful office in our nation.

Isn’t it time we as a nation recognize that names matter and that we as a nation owe it to African Americans to respect the names that matter so much to them? The people have overwhelmingly spoken their minds in naming a magnificent urban park on a hillside in Columbia Heights. The people call it Malcolm X Park for a reason, and they’ve been calling it that for four decades. Isn’t it time that the National Park Service, which operates this and all other city park spaces in Washington, makes amends and removes the statue? And isn’t it time the NPS officially renames the site to reflect a people’s history and their pride, and what we all should know by now is reality?

Claudia Ricci

By Gina Acosta  | February 25, 2009; 7:32 AM ET
Categories:  parks  
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Buchanan (who was a doughface) sat by as President and did nothing as separatists tore the nation he was supposed to be leading apart. He is regarded as the worst President in our history.

Now, Malcolm X was a major spokesman for black nationalism. Unlike some other African American leaders who supported nonviolent methods, Malcolm X believed in more aggressive measures. He is regarded as a hero apparently, to these people.

Who knows, as things continue to evolve, that neighborhood will turn into a poor white slum, there will be riots, and maybe a inspired member of the White Christians fighting against oppression and for white nationalism will emerge, and have the park named in his honor.

Posted by: WilliamBlake | February 25, 2009 5:47 PM | Report abuse

I must confess, it is charming that people without good information can find places to enjoy. But why should they immediately issue orders and start th be our directors?

Posted by: gary4books | February 27, 2009 3:02 PM | Report abuse

Ms. Ricci is absolutely correct and her column expresses the sentiments of many who live in the neighborhood. As a resident of Adams Morgan and Mt. Pleasant since 1973, and someone who has been active in community affairs, I can testify that it is common knowledge that while real estate agents have lobbied to keep the name Meridian Hill, the name used to refer to the park by those who have lived here over the past 40 years is, indeed, Malcolm X Park. This inconsistency is a frequent topic of conversation. The two individuals who commented negatively displayed their ideological bias, but did not indicate that they either lived in the neighborhood or that they had accurate information themselves. Thank you Ms. Ricci for writing what many of us have been thinking and talking about for years. Whether the city will have the guts to do anything about it is another question.

Posted by: marksimon1 | March 1, 2009 8:35 AM | Report abuse

Ms. Ricci is absolutely incorrect about the name of Meridian Hill Park being Malcolm X Park and a simple Google search on Wikipedia or The National Park Service would have better informed her than her yoga instructor. Both sites state that Meridian Hill Park is also known UNOFFICIALLY as Malcolm X Park. My family has lived in Washington for approx. 100 years and it's astounding to me that someone who admittedly just got here a few weeks ago feels so entitled to critize our city's history. My good friends, both black and white but all native Washingtonians, know exactly where and what a beautiful spot Meridian Hill Park is, just like we remember the old ruins of Henderson Castle across the street and know that those confusing traffic circles were once the trolly car turn-arounds. Please do some simple research in the future about the wonderful things you'll eventually find in Washington, D.C.

Posted by: mogul90 | March 1, 2009 3:05 PM | Report abuse

According to the architecture guidebook _Washington Itself_ by E.J. Applewhite (1981), "The park is now unofficially known as Malcolm X Park, by resolution of the D.C. government, but the Interior Department, which operates the site as part of the National Capital Region Parks, questions the authority of the District to rename federal property."

Posted by: edaniel | March 2, 2009 9:59 AM | Report abuse

Has anyone happened to notice that Malcom X Park -tragically- is also cruising grounds for male prostitutes? Last summer, visiting my son who worked there, I wandered through this beautiful place and only ONE of the men waiting for clientelle was interested in an older woman...from which I deduce that either (a) I am really old or (b) they are mostly looking for gay men. Sad either way.

Posted by: dkfielding | March 2, 2009 1:17 PM | Report abuse

Ms Ricci,
It is Jeanne D'Arc who presides over Malcolm X park, not Buchanan. Next time you jog by, go up the steps to the terrace above the cascading fountain. There you will find Jeanne in the most prominent place, dressed in armor mounted on her horse, sword drawn, facing south overlooking the cascading fountain eyes on the vista to the mall, the Capitol, the Washington monument and Potomac river beyond. She was a gift to the women of the United States from the women of France.

Posted by: quartz | March 2, 2009 4:05 PM | Report abuse

I am sorry you misunderstood, most Washingtonians realize that in the end we are just renters from America at large. Its their city, and our priveledge to live here.

Frankly I think the juxtaposition of Buchanan and the sea of change that has happened over the last 150 years hits the right note. Our past and our future rolled into one. Maybe the best solution is to put up a statue of Malcom X, then the visitors children can think back about the past, and what sort of future they want.

Posted by: DCDave11 | March 4, 2009 3:36 AM | Report abuse

God forbid you call it Malcolm X park to one of the Park Police officers that patrol the area. (The white ones). They are quick to reply "You mean Meridian Hill Park"..."My reply, no I meant Malcolm X Park". I was surprised I wasn't arrested considering the passion with which the officer made the statement.

Perhaps the Feds should transfer the land to the D.C. Parks and Rec dept.

They won't then have to admit the obvious.

Posted by: concernedaboutdc | March 4, 2009 12:18 PM | Report abuse

I think that with as strapped for cash as the DC city government is that maintaining this park in the beautiful fashion that it is maintained would be impossible. People would complain to high heavens about DC spending money on a park in an area so gentrified. 'Let the rich folk in the neighborhood pay for it, is the cry that would ring out'.

I would suggest that people go and enjoy the park call it whatever they want and not worry about the official name, after all 'a rose by any other name is still just as beautiful'.

Posted by: DCDave11 | March 4, 2009 1:24 PM | Report abuse

It is a sad day when someone ignorant of the entire history of a place begins making naming assumptions. I live in the neighborhood and have always understood its name to be Meridian Hill Park. Period. This is not a cultural bias, just a historical fact. All this talk about rich people versus African Americans is ridiculous. Historically this neighborhood has experienced many different histories. It has built as an affluent white neighborhood. It became an affluent mixed neighborhood. Then it became a less affluent mixed neighborhood. Then it became an African American neighborhood. Now it is a mixed neighborhood once again. Nobody has exclusive right to call this park anything other than its original intended name. Just enjoy it, understand its history and move on.

Posted by: emikael | March 4, 2009 9:49 PM | Report abuse

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