The racist history of Chevy Chase, home to power players like Brett Kavanaugh
The tree-lined community of multimillion-dollar homes sits nestled in Maryland’s Montgomery County, just beyond the District of Columbia, and plays host to Washington’s powerful and wealthy. But the tony Village of Chevy Chase has a long history, not only of economic elitism, but also of racial exclusion.
As late as 1976, the New York Times noted that the Chevy Chase Club – golf course and country club where President William Howard Taft once played and whose members include Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. – permitted “blackskinned members of the diplomatic corps” but not “black American residents of the area, not even the black mayor of the nation’s capital.”
“I guess that depends on how you determine what black is,” then-club President Millard West told the Times. “We do have provisions whereby members of the diplomatic corps are given preferential treatment.”
The club and community surrounding it were founded by Francis G. Newlands, who bought the land, constructed the houses, wrote the deeds and then built a streetcar line to take Washington’s wealthy to his gorgeous, tree-lined community.
But the developer of Chevy Chase was also a notorious racist, a Nevada senator who once called for a repeal of the 15th Amendment, the law granting voting rights to African-American men.
“I was asked about naming a building for him and said, ‘Well you’d better take a look at his racial beliefs,’ ” said William D. Rowley, an emeritus historian at the University of Nevada at Reno. “There are no buildings named for him on campus at UNR.”
In the late 1800s, with Sen. William Stewart as a partner in the Chevy Chase Land Co., Newlands secured 2,000 acres of unspoiled land for Rock Creek Park. For Stewart and Newlands, the National Park not only increased property values but also served to shield the white communities from emerging black neighborhoods on what they called the “wrong side of the park.”
Although most buyers were lured to Chevy Chase by the appeal of an exurban house with a yard, real estate agents also pushed the idea that Chevy Chase was an exclusive enclave that easily priced out nonwhites, the newly immigrated and the working class. Houses fronting on Connecticut Avenue could not cost less than $5,000 and side-street residences could not cost less than $3,000 – in today’s money, between $90,000 and $150,000. (Today, many Connecticut Avenue abodes exceed a million dollars in appraised value.)
But Newlands’s racist views were on display long before his development of the exclusive community.
Newlands, the son of a Scottish physician, was born in Natchez, Mississippi, in 1846 and had a hardscrabble youth. His father, an alcoholic, died young and his mother remarried a businessman who had lost his fortune in the depression of 1857 and moved to the District of Columbia. His brother, a Union soldier, was severely wounded during the Civil War and later died from complications of his injuries.
“In one letter, Newlands said that the North didn’t have a cause to fight for like the South had a cause to fight for,” said Rowley, author of “Reclaiming the Arid West: The Career of Francis G. Newlands.” “He was a Northern Democrat who had doubts about the war.”
After attending Yale and George Washington University Law School (then Columbian College), the young lawyer went west to San Francisco, representing the mining interests and marrying into parvenu wealth and politics. Newlands’ first wife, Clara Adelaide Sharon, the daughter of a Nevada senator, inherited a fortune from the state’s silver mines.
When his wife died in the early 1880s, Newlands began buying land.
By the turn of the decade, Newlands and his business partner Maj. George Armes had secretly bought up 1,700 acres between Woodley Park and Jones Bridge Road and incorporated the Chevy Chase Land Company.
Newlands’ Capitol Hill clout won him the charter to build the streetcar line in 1892. By 1901, the first 49 homes were built and within four years, many Chevy Chase residents could be found in the social register. The amenities included a resort, a manmade lake with a water turbo that powered the trolley line, a swimming pool, an amusement park and the members-only Chevy Chase Club.
Newlands represented Nevada as a Silver party congressman starting in 1893 and eventually became a Democratic senator. His legislative achievements included introducing the bill that annexed the Republic of Hawaii into the United States. A staunch conservationist and progressive, he broke party lines to support Republican initiatives such as the National Parks and U.S. Forest Service.
“After he becomes senator, he becomes one of the most recognizable voices in western progressivism,” Rowley said. “He looks to the government for reforms and modernization. This is unusual for a Democrat, as most were for states’ rights.”
However, a proposal he put forth in the Democratic National Convention of 1912 taints Newlands’ legacy.
“Senator Francis G. Newlands of Nevada arrived here to-day direct from Reno with a proposal which is believed to contain more political dynamite to the square inch than any that has been submitted to the Resolutions Committee of a convention of either party in a good many years,” trumpeted a New York Times story from the convention.
Newlands, who viewed African-Americans as “a race of children,” called for repeal of the 15th Amendment, terming it “poison in the constitution.” Democrats voted the proposal down. However, in an era of Southern poll taxes and literacy tests, it was less about the desire for inclusiveness and more about political philosophy.
Rowley said the proposal was “viewed as extreme, though not without support. Newlands was working to unite the segregationist South with the anti-Chinese movement on the (West) coast. Some thought that might be a winning political strategy. … He believed that by repealing the 15th Amendment this could be done at the national level. He didn’t think it could be done at the state level. He was criticized by Democrats who felt it was a state issue.”
Newlands’ racist beliefs affected his philosophy as a developer and conservationist, too.
In 1909, when a developer sold a few lots near Western Avenue to black families, the Chevy Chase Land Co. filed suit and reacquired the property, keeping the community white. By the 1920s, after Newlands’ death, many deeds included restrictive covenants forbidding sale or rental to blacks and Jews. (Such wording was common until passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968.)
The modern and diverse Chevy Chase consists of the Village of Chevy Chase in Maryland and an adjoining neighborhood beyond a traffic circle in D.C. Brett Kavanaugh’s wife, Ashley, is the town manager of her section of the community.
A fountain in the center of Chevy Chase Circle is named Francis Griffith Newlands Memorial Fountain. In 2014, a D.C. advisory neighborhood commissioner attempted to change the name, but the debate went nowhere.
“The story you get is, ‘Once upon a time this great man from Nevada founded the Chevy Chase Land Company and built beautiful neighborhoods in D.C. and Maryland.’ Gosh golly gee,” the commissioner Gary Thompson told The Washington Post in December 2014. “I don’t think Newlands gets a pass because of the times. He helped create the times.”
The fountain remains named for Newlands and – without the slightest hint of irony – its inscription reads “His statesmanship held true regard for the interests of all men.”