One of Washington’s least-known monuments sits just outside Robert F. Kennedy Stadium. The 10-foot tall red granite slab, on a walkway leading to the stadium – once DC’s mecca for football and baseball, now about to be abandoned by its last occupant, the DC United soccer team – bears the image of George Preston Marshall.
For those who are not historians of Washington professional sports, Marshall was once the owner of Washington’s professional football team, the one that now plays at FedEx Field in Landover and bears the nickname that many Native Americans regard as a racial slur against themselves. Indeed, it was Marshall who chose the moniker while the team played in Boston and retained it when he brought the squad to the District in 1937.
One could excuse Marshall for selecting a racially insensitive nickname in a less-enlightened age, when no one blinked at team names, logos and mascots that stereotyped and demeaned Native Americans. Even today, the Atlanta Braves’ fans cling to the tomahawk chop and the Cleveland Indians to grinning Chief Wahoo, so one could conclude that giving a team a name in the 1930s that is considered offensive to Natives today does not necessarily peg Marshall as a racist.
However, there is more to Marshall’s racial resume than a team name. The NFL integrated in 1946, one year before major league baseball, but even after every other team in the league employed African American players, Marshall’s team remained lily-white until 1962 – and he buckled only under pressure from the Kennedy administration, which threatened to revoke the team’s lease on its federally owned stadium (then called DC Stadium) unless it changed its policy of racial exclusion.
More than a half-century later, a full-throated campaign is underway to pressure the team to change its racist moniker. Since 2015, the grassroots organization Rebrand Washington Football (RWF) has been circulating petitions to demand a name change; by the end of this May the group had collected over 4,000 signatures and made two trips to team headquarters in Ashburn, Va., to deliver them to team officials. A petition-delivery trip last December included several Native American activists. However, Daniel Snyder, the current team owner, has declined to even discuss a name change. “We’ll never change the name,” he said in an interview. “It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”
RWF, while continuing the petition campaign, has now also turned its attention to the Marshall monument. With DC United pulling out of RFK next year and moving to its new home at Buzzard Point, the old stadium is slated for demolition. The DC government has announced plans for the site that include multipurpose athletic fields, a food market and an indoor sports complex, along with a memorial to Robert F. Kennedy. The plan doesn’t preclude also building a new football stadium there, and Snyder is eyeing the site for a replacement for his own aging FedEx Field. But one thing is for certain: When RFK goes, a decision will have to be made about the fate of the Marshall monument. But what?
In a time when monuments across the country to a shameful racist past are being retired to the dustbin of history – the Confederate flags, the statues of Rebel leaders (such as took place in New Orleans last month) – RWF argues that the only appropriate fate of the Marshall monument is to be removed from our community. EventsDC, the DC agency that controls RFK Stadium and the monument, has suggested the monument might be relocated, with DC taxpayers possibly picking up the tab. It would cost an estimated $30,000 to relocate the monument to Marshall’s hometown of Grafton, W.Va., one of the possible sites, but the town told representatives of RWF that it doesn’t want it.
Several other potential recipients of the monument, including the Washington football team and the Pro Football Hall of Fame, declined to accept it. But if EventsDC should find someone who wants the monument but not pay for the shipping, DC taxpayers might be ponying up to preserve a monument to a racist past. Given the District’s need for more money for education, affordable housing, health care and other urgent priorities, do we really want to spend $30,000 to preserve a monument to a segregationist? If DC really has that sum to spare, it could provide permanent supportive housing to a chronically homeless person for more than a year, or provide iPads for 80 DC public school students.
"RFK Stadium bookends the story of integration in major US sports,” said Ian Washburn, a founder of RWF. “Marshall hindered such efforts for 15 years after the debut of Jackie Robinson. We know this site could host a better future without Marshall's presence. We look forward to Events DC making the correct decision to remove the monument."
Therefore, on Saturday, June 3, RWF and the Rising Hearts Coalition, a Native advocacy organization, will hold a rally at the monument to demand its removal and, preferably, its demolition. It certainly should not be relocated at public expense, RWF argues. The rally will begin outside RFK Stadium (at the corner of the unit block of 22nd and East Capitol Streets SE) at 5:00 p.m. and run until 7:00 p.m., the timing arranged to take advantage of foot traffic into a DC United game being held that evening. Everyone who supports racial justice is invited to join the rally.
In an age when the issue of racial justice has come to the forefront of national consciousness, the need to oppose racism in all its manifestations is more critical than ever. For the residents of DC, the Marshall monument is an affront that sits literally in our backyard. Its removal would be a visible rejection of a racist past and an endorsement of a more just and inclusive future.