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Battle over park name shows that history is never the past in Alexandria

Project had been planned to be in honor of early mayor and slave owner

For six years, Alexandria officials referred to the planned waterfront park as Fitzgerald Square — a tribute to Col. John Fitzgerald, an Irish immigrant who was aide-de-camp to Gen. George Washington in the Revolutionary War and an early mayor of the Colonial city.

But by the time the City Council broke ground for the park at the foot of King Street on March 17 — St. Patrick’s Day — the moniker had disappeared.

The new name, King Street Park at the Waterfront, is also temporary, said city officials, who plan to solicit public opinion under a relatively new park- naming process before deciding what to call the site in perpetuity.

Spokesman Craig Fifer said the city decided to stop referring to the project as Fitzgerald Square as the groundbreaking approached, because officials felt it was inappropriate to continue using a name that had not been formally chosen.

Alexandria city contractors work on the site of the new King Street Waterfront Park. (Patricia Sullivan/TWP)

The city had also received some complaints about honoring Fitzgerald because he was a slave owner, officials said. But the decision to drop the name – at least for now – has sparked a much larger outcry, from Irish Catholic cultural groups who saw the name as a fitting tribute to the colonel and to Irish laborers who worked along the Alexandria waterfront over the years.

“The most important thing we want to bring home was not just to recognize the contributions of Colonel Fitzgerald, but all the Irish who worked on the docks here,” said Terry Riley, president of the local chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a national Irish Catholic cultural group has collected more than 1,000 signatures on a petition to restore the name and has demanded to know who made the decision to drop it.

Fitzgerald, who arrived in 1769 from Wicklow, Ireland, was a prominent figure in early Alexandria. A biographical sketch inspired by research by T. Michael Miller, a former Alexandria city historian, describes him as “dashing” and “an agreeable, broad-shouldered Irishman.”

He was with Washington at the crossing of the Delaware and the Battle of Trenton, survived winter at Valley Forge and was wounded at the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey, according to multiple histories.

Back in Alexandria on leave in 1781, Fitzgerald marshaled local forces to repel a surprise attack by the British, organizing citizens at Market Square and leading a smaller band to Jones Point. The British shelled the town and then left.

After the war, he and Washington became directors of the Potomac Company, which sought to improve navigation and commerce on the river. In 1788, Fitzgerald bought land on what is now the 200 block of King Street. He extended the river’s bank 400 feet to create Fitzgerald’s Wharf, where he built three warehouses and a tavern.

Records show that Fitzgerald was a slave owner, said Joel Horowitz, local history and special collections librarian at Alexandria’s Barrett Library. Around the time he was mayor, his household included nine black people over the age of 16 and five under 16.

“Some in the community feel strongly in favor of Fitzgerald for historical or other reasons, and some feel strongly against for historical or other reasons,” said Fifer, the city spokesman. “That’s an issue that can be discussed in the course of the naming process yet to come.”

Alexandria was a major slave trade port for more than a century, from the mid-1700s through the Civil War. The importance of the slave trade was one of the reasons that the city in 1846 sought to secede from the District of Columbia, which was considering outlawing the practice.

Several slave “pens” operated in Alexandria, including one that was considered the largest in the nation. Throughout the city, if you know where to look, there are remnants of how slavery was part and parcel of everyday life before the Civil War.

The park at the foot of King Street is supposed to anchor the redevelopment of Alexandria’s waterfront. It is located where a parking lot, a sliver of green space and the Old Dominion Boat Club once stood. The park is slated to open this fall, barring weather and construction delays.

By that time, the city hopes to have a permanent name for the park. Fifer said all sides “will have their say.”

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on Aug. 1. It was updated Oct. 16 to include a more complete explanation of why the city stopped using the name “Fitzgerald Park.”

This article was written by Patricia Sullivan of the Washington Post

Alexandria City Release: CLICK HERE for updated information about the status of the park.

Important Info from article:

The next meeting of the Naming Committee will be held on Thursday, November 29, 2018, from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m., in the City Council Workroom in City Hall, for the purpose of adopting a recommendation to City Council. The Naming Committee’s discussion will be based on the public input received thus far, and no additional public input is planned to be received at this meeting. 

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