By: Kirby Vining
Washington D.C.’s McMillan Park commemorates the contributions of Michigan’s Senator James McMillan both to beautify our nation’s capital and improve the water supply and stop the epidemics of typhoid fever. The commemoration of Senator McMillan at this location is significant: It combines the water purification function of the Washington Aqueduct’s McMillan Reservoir and slow sand filtration facility with the graceful, calming landscaping of Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., both projects for which Senator McMillan fought hard to realize. A fountain named in his honor, paid for by the school children from every county in Michigan, originally stood in the place of honor and prominence, overlooking the entire park, and again combining beauty with water.
But it is also the scene of a lesser-known chapter in the history of our once very segregated city. McMillan Park was Washington’s first de facto racially integrated public park, enjoyed for decades by black families who were not permitted to use other, segregated public parks, until it closed for security reasons at the beginning of World War II. And at the southern edge of the Park is the former home of James Hurd, whose attempts to purchase that house resulted in the landmark Hurd v. Hodge Supreme Court case that overturned the racial covenants then common in D.C. real estate deeds.
The racial integration of McMillan Park was likely unintentional. While police throughout the rest of Washington shooed blacks away from most other public institutions, McMillan Park was administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers whose mandate was to maintain the water facility. Apparently the Corps never chased anyone off the Park for racial reasons. Howard University Sociology Professor William Henry Jones in his 1927 book, Recreation and Amusement Among Negroes in Washington, D.C., a detailed study of exactly where blacks could and could not go in segregated Washington, noted that there were only two public parks open to blacks. Rock Creek Park and the National Zoo were open to blacks one day each year only: the day after Easter, according to an old Washington tradition. But he also wrote that “McMillan Park, located east of Howard University and surrounding the New Reservoir, has been taken over almost exclusively by Negroes.” Professor Jones could not cite any other public park in Washington that routinely admitted black families.
A fence with “No Trespassing” signs was erected around McMillan Park in May, 1941 to protect the water supply from enemy sabotage not many months before the U.S. entered World War II. The McMillan Fountain was removed with all its benches and other amenities to stop the public from sneaking in to continue to enjoy their park. McMillan Park has been closed to the public since then, though many men in the surrounding neighborhoods fondly recall sneaking under the fence to run around in the underground caverns or play ball on the surface even years after the park was closed.
Many now-elderly residents of the nearby neighborhoods recall their enjoyment of the park before it was closed, for all the usual activities we associate with city parks. The park atop the sand filtration site was used for ballgames, parades, picnics, military training, and many other common activities, as is documented in the DC Historic Landmark designation for the site (see section 310.23), as well as in some more recent oral history interviews. And there are many more of our senior citizens who for reasons that must be respected choose not to have their stories documented.
Though the park, reservoir, sand filtration plant, and the fountain are tangible testimony to the McMillan Plan’s intentions of beautifying our city and saving us from the ravages of typhoid, the story of the use of McMillan Park is intangible, but no less a chapter of our history. This story is not well known because segregation was always a dirty secret not well covered in the press except when it exploded in arrests, riots, or worse. We hope that those days are gone and that this story will not be forgotten.
The District of Columbia is our home. But it is also the world’s stage, a beautiful theater that hosts grand events such as the 1963 March on Washington and funerals of presidents. It is also home to a subtler grandeur as well for those of us who spend our lives here, such as the drum circle at Meridian Hill Park, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and for the black families who spent hot summer afternoons and evenings with a picnic on the breezy plain at McMillan Park. Senator McMillan, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., and others on the McMillan Plan design team could not have foreseen these intangible details of how their redesigned city would be used, both grand and small. But they certainly foresaw the creation of this stage for the grand and the subtle on which history, national and personal, would play out.