What to do with a park and monument in Reno for racist Nevada senator?

This is the memorial for former Nevada U.S. Sen. Francis Newlands at Newlands Park in southwest...
This is the memorial for former Nevada U.S. Sen. Francis Newlands at Newlands Park in southwest Reno.(Steve Timko/KOLO)
Published: Jul. 19, 2020 at 5:42 PM PDT
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RENO, Nev. (KOLO) -As monuments nationwide face scrutiny, the city of Reno scheduled an Aug. 13 meeting to start a review of city names for streets, buildings, parks and other facilities.

The Historical Resources Commission, Human Rights Commission, Recreation and Parks Commission and Reno Arts and Culture Commission are scheduled to participate in the Zoom meeting online.

The list of names to be reviewed has not been finalized, but Historical Resources Commission member Emerson Marcus expects Newlands Park and its memorial to face scrutiny.

The park is named for Francis G. Newlands, a Nevada U.S. senator from 1903 until his death in 1917. California Avenue bisects the park just as westbound travelers leave Old Southwest Reno and head towards Keystone Avenue. The larger part on the Truckee River side includes a playground and benches. The smaller side has a monument to Newlands.

Retired University of Nevada, Reno history professor William Rowley wrote Newlands’ biography, published in 1996. Newlands considered blacks a “race of children,” Rowley said.

After the Civil War, the U.S. passed the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to protect black citizens and the freed slaves. The 13th amendment abolished slavery. The 14th amendment granted citizenship to everyone born or naturalized in the U.S., including former slaves, and guaranteed equal protection. The 15th amendment guaranteed blacks the right to vote.

Newlands went to the 1912 National Democratic convention and tried to make it part of the Democratic platform to seek the repeal of the 15th Amendment. Newlands called it “poison in the Constitution,” Rowley said.

Rowley said Newlands was trying to marry anti-black sentiments of the south with anti-Chinese sympathy from the west coast. In the late 1800s there were strong anti-Chinese sentiments in Virginia City, for example, as Chinese who worked on the transcontinental railroad tried to work in the mines after the railroad was finished. There were also anti-Chinese riots in Truckee at the same time, Rowley said.

Newlands may have had even more ambition, using the issue to get the presidential nomination should party leaders not have been able to pick a candidate. The party picked Woodrow Wilson, whose correspondence with Newlands showed he approved of the position Newlands was taking “on the Negro question,” Rowley said.

Although there was support in the south to repeal the 15th Amendment, there was little support in the party as a whole and it went nowhere, Rowley said.

Francis Newlands, former U.S. senator from Nevada.
Francis Newlands, former U.S. senator from Nevada.(Library of Congress)

Newlands and Wilson were both part of the Progressive Movement of the time, While the movement championed issues like woman’s suffrage, the end of child labor and instituting 40-hour workweeks, their racial views were often not progressive by today’s standards. Wilson, for instance, had the first movie shown in the White House, D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” in which the Ku Klux Klan heroically rode to rescue a white family from black attackers.

“Progressives are interested in a modern America. And a modern America should be an efficient America,” Rowley said. And that efficient ideal was limited to all whites, since other races would be inefficient.

That efficiency extended to other areas, as well. Forests, for instance, should be harvested for their lumber and not left to the natural cycle of having fires burn some trees and reset the environment. And free-flowing water should be diverted for irrigation or dammed to generate electricity.

Rowley said by the late 1800s mining had collapsed in Nevada and Newlands thought irrigated agriculture was the future of Nevada. Newlands wanted the state to pay for it. But Nevada went from a population of about 47,000 in 1890 to about 41,000 by 1900 and was too impoverished to do it. So, Newlands made it a federal project.

That led to the Reclamation Act of 1902, frequently called the Newlands Act. Newlands served as Nevada’s member of the House of Representatives from 1893 until he was elected senator and the Reclamation Act passed while he was in the House. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation noted that between 1902 to 1907 it started about 30 projects to divert water for irrigation in western states.

The monument in Newlands Park seems to celebrate this, citing Isaiah 35:6, about waters gushing forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.

The monument is near the Truckee River, which, along with the Carson River, had water diverted for agricultural use, primarily in the Fallon and Fernley areas. This was part of the Reclamation Act.

Truckee River water started being diverted at Derby Dam in 1908 and by 1968 there was an 80-foot decline in Pyramid Lake, said Mervin Wright Jr., environmental manager for the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. Additionally, Winnemucca Lake east of Pyramid Lake was a thriving wildlife refuge before the diversion, but it has largely disappeared. And Derby Dam is a barrier for fish from the tribal fisheries spawning upstream.

“Nobody had any thought about the impact that diverting the Truckee River water from the Pyramid Lake would have down here,” Wright said.

So how does Wright feel about celebrating a man whose accomplishments did so much damage to the Paiute way of life? He doesn’t think the monument should be taken down.

“Not really. We all who he is,” Wright said. “It’s just like all the other monuments around the country. People know what they stand for. To go and try to tear it down, I don’t know what that is going to accomplish.”

Wright said he has a good working relationship with the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District, which manages the water diverted for agriculture. The important thing now is to make sure that the fish can spawn and make it past Derby Dam and don’t end up down the irrigation canal in Churchill County.

“History is what it is,” Wright said. “When we look at the cruelty and how dire the consequences of what actions took place were, we can’t change that.”

There will be a time to tell the story of what happened.

“It’s not going to be a kind thing to tell and people will be offended by it,” Wright said.

Rowley said he can recall nothing in Newlands writings that expressed racism towards American Indians.

But Newlands has another legacy of racism.

Newlands and Nevada Sen. William Stewart founded the community of Chevy Chase just outside Washington, D.C., in the late 1800s, a 2018 Washington Post article by Terence McArdle pointed out.

“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,” the Post article said.

After Newlands’ death, the codes, covenants and restrictions forbade blacks and Jews from living in Chevy Chase, the article said.

A fountain in Chevy Chase is named for Newlands, the Post article noted, and the inscription on it reads: “His statesmanship held true regard for the interests of all men.”

There is a Chevy Chase Street in Reno. It is near the Washoe County golf course in southwest Reno. Lander Street ends in a cul-de-sac and Chevy Chase Street goes from that cul-de-sac about 460 feet and ends at Humboldt Street. City of Reno Public Information Officer Jon Humbert had no information on how the street got its name.

The Newlands monument appears to have vandalized, but Humbert had no information on that.

The city of Reno acquired the property for Newlands park in 1920, Humbert said. Its construction date is not certain but is believed to be between 1922 to 1924. A memorial plaque dedicated to Newlands was dedicated in 1924.

Humbert said the deed specifies It must remain a park and playground and a memorial to Newlands. “So potentially if someone wanted to sponsor an educational piece/interpretive sign that would be allowed,” Humbert said in an email.

Newlands biographer Rowley noted there are no buildings at UNR named after Newlands because of his racist legacy.

“I certainly can understand how people might not want the name on the park,” Rowley said. “The case is complicated. Certainly, the full picture should be noted somewhere.”

The larger part of Newlands Park on California Avenue in Reno.
The larger part of Newlands Park on California Avenue in Reno.(Steve Timko/KOLO)
The monument at Newlands Park in Reno.
The monument at Newlands Park in Reno.(Steve Timko/KOLO)

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