RENO, Nev. (AP) — Residents have launched an effort to rename a southwest Reno park honoring a U.S. senator from Nevada best known as the father of the first major irrigation project in the West in the early 1900s but who — unbeknownst to most — also believed Black people shouldn’t be allowed to vote.
Like most people, Khalilah Cage had no idea the park where she often plays with her children is named after the powerful 19th century politician, Francis G. Newlands.
“He didn’t even consider African Americans to be citizens,” said Cage, who is Black.
“My kids are 9 and 7, and this park we go to has a monument to this man who thought (terrible) things about us,” she told the Reno Gazette Journal.
Now, Cage wants to drive a discussion about renaming Newlands Park and removing the stone monument that memorializes the racist senator who represented Nevada for 24 years.
The small circular park is on the edge of a cluster of prestigious Reno neighborhoods that also bear the Newlands name — a district that was added to the National Historic Register in 2017.
Cage is working with her friend Bin Bin Erwin to organize support for the name change.
The two women are embarking on a difficult path, going up against historians who are urging a cautious approach to rethinking one of the city’s most historic geographical names and longtime residents who resist change.
It’s a question that communities across the country are grappling with amid efforts to address symbols of the systemic racism that still grips the nation.
William Rowley, an emeritus history professor at UNR, wrote a biography about Newlands and a 1974 paper documenting his racism. His initial research focused on the irrigation projects before he stumbled upon his beliefs about race.
“I had no idea,” Rowley said.
Newlands built a fancy mansion on a bluff overlooking the Truckee River to help shed his carpetbagger reputation, Rowley said.
He first was elected to the U.S. House in 1893. He became a U.S. senator 10 years later.
Newlands believed in building a “progressive and white America,” Rowley said, and advocated closing U.S. borders to all but white people.
Newlands wrote that Black people should be sent to Africa if they felt the need to be part of society. He wanted to “write the word white into the constitution” and pushed for repealing the 15th Amendment, which granted suffrage to Black men, Rowley said.
Newlands also set up land development companies in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and Reno. He was deeply interested in the refinement of American residential neighborhoods.
In Reno, he argued the Truckee River should no longer be used as a sewer. He wanted to see a grand promenade built along its banks and promoted the development of genteel tree-lined streets. He bought the land around his mansion and established the Newlands Company.
From 1920-27, the Newlands Company and its development partner W.E. Barnard built three Reno subdivisions. While they were beautiful, it was clear they were meant for whites only.
At first, deed restrictions placed requirements on the price and design of houses, effectively limiting ownership to wealthy whites, according to ZoAnn Campana’s application to the National Register of Historic Places.
By 1920, however, developers of Newlands’ land became much more explicit. Deed restrictions in the Newlands Manor neighborhood prohibited homeowners from allowing anyone not of Caucasian descent from buying or using property there.
Common throughout the West in 1920, those deed restrictions still exist today in Newlands and other Reno neighborhoods. They’ve been unenforceable since 1948. But a new law sponsored by state Sen. Julia Ratti allows homeowners to file a document with the county recorder to void the racist provisions.
“I know it’s not enforceable,” Cage said. “But it hurts my soul to have to read that.”
Today the neighborhood remains beautifully landscaped. It also remains almost entirely white.
According to U.S. Census estimates, only 53 of the 5,278 people who live there are Black. Latinos, who make up 25% of Reno’s population, account for just 7% of the Newlands neighborhood.
It’s a neighborhood full of Reno’s well-to-do, including lobbyists, former council members and lawyers.
Since first raising the issue on social media last month, Erwin has been accused of being divisive, wanting to erase history and creating a problem where none existed before.
The city has scheduled a joint meeting in August with several local commissions to discuss guidelines for naming and renaming city facilities.
Toni Harsh, a former city councilwoman who lives in the district, said she sees changing the name as an attempt to disregard history rather than learn from it.
“How does erasing his name improve us,” she asked. “Wouldn’t it be better to be aware of it and see this is where we are now.”
One thing is clear to Cage:
“My kids don’t need to play in a park named after Francis G. Newlands.”