by Ann Kessler
In one newspaper article marking his passing in 1941 at the age of 73, Melvin C. Hazen was called “The Boss,” “First Citizen of Washington,” and “one of the city’s most beloved characters.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s particular name for Hazen was “Grand Old Man of the District.” FDR also said that “he didn’t know of anyone in Washington who was more public spirited in his long years of office dating back to the Woodrow Wilson administration.” And Hazen’s colleagues on the District’s governing council of the time remembered Hazen as having “given an unselfish devotion to his duties,” saying that “through his tireless energy, his intelligence and wide experience, he has been a contributing factor in the development of the National Capital.”
The accolades from official Washington did not tell the entire story of the man or his reputation.
Eight decades after his death, we mostly know Hazen’s name because of the Rock Creek tributary and park that was named for him in the early 1940s. And recently, his name came up again – in the context of the nationwide reckoning over systemic racism and the names chosen for our landmarks and institutions.
Last summer, Mayor Muriel Bowser appointed a working group to analyze the names of DC-managed properties such as streets, parks and schools. Its role was to judge if the names met present-day values. Melvin C. Hazen Park did not make the commission’s final report, but Rock Creek Conservancy and some others are calling for a change, and ANC 3F passed a resolution in November urging the National Park Service to work with the community to find another suitable name.
Why? Because on at least one occasion, he was a willing and active participant in efforts to force Black residents out of this part of the District.
A half-century in DC government
Melvin C. Hazen was born in Virginia on October 27, 1867. His first love was horses and indeed, in contemplating retirement, had said he wanted to return to his farm in Nokesville, Virginia.
He graduated from the Maryland Agricultural College (the predecessor to the University of Maryland) in 1886 and studied engineering before entering the DC government workforce as a clerk in July 1889. By 1900, Hazen was supervising the planning of the District’s permanent highway system. All told, Hazen worked for the District government for 51 years in various positions. From clerk he went on to serve as city surveyor for 30 years, and finally was appointed to the DC Board of Commissioners by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933.
The board was, at that time, the highest office in the DC government. Hazen was a dark horse candidate, and even at the time it was unclear why he had been chosen for this promotion. It was surmised in The Washington Post, by reporter F. Bernard McDonnell, that Hazen was supported by prominent race horse people in New York and New Jersey. His backers, McDonnell wrote, pressed Roosevelt’s postmaster general and master politician Jim Farley to bring Hazen’s name to the president.
According to DC historian Constance McLaughlin Green, Hazen was promoted by Roosevelt because of his friendship with Rear Admiral Cary T. Grayson, who had led Roosevelt’s first inaugural committee. And McLaughlin Green thought him a poor choice, referring to him in a 1962 DC history textbook as a “dignified, slow-paced hack.”
“To choose for District commissioner a man without intense interest in urban problems seemed odd to some of his subordinates and distinctly unfortunate to citizens who believed the moment ripe for vigorous leadership in the local as well as the national government,” she wrote. “He disliked the very idea of change unless it were to enhance the authority of the commissioners.”
Whatever the reason for his appointment to the DC Commissioners, Hazen served in that position for eight years – from 1933 until his sudden death in 1941.
The destruction of Reno City
Before his appointment to the board, Hazen was the government bureaucrat who engineered the demolition of the Black community that once lived where Wilson High School, Deal Middle School and Fort Reno Park stand today. Reno City was established a few years after the Civil War, and Hazen, as the District surveyor, was calling for its removal as early as 1914. In a 1924 report to the DC Commissioners, he called Reno a “blight” on the city.
And in 1926 Senate testimony, he described the neighborhood as an “ill-shaped, ill-devised sub-division” out of “harmony with the general plan for the District.”
“[T]his area is more or less a blight on the public development of the highway plan,” he said.
When asked by Senator Royal Copeland of New York how many homes would need to be condemned, Hazen replied, “I do not know, but there are hundreds of them I should say – small homes.”
“Principally occupied by whom?” Copeland asked.
“Mostly by colored folks,” Hazen answered.
“The property owners were not particularly consulted,” Hazen said at the same hearing. “It was looked at from a broad view, with the idea of improving the street plans and the park plans of the District.”
Despite community opposition, Reno City’s demolition would be ordered and residents would be scattered to find new homes across the city. Hazen, as city surveyor, would get the grid he wanted and the schools he wanted.
(Further reading: “The Battle of Fort Reno,” Washington City Paper, November 2017)
Hazen’s time on the Board of Commissioners
Hazen drew praise from high levels for another effort that displaced the District’s Black residents. The Alley Dwelling Authority of the District of Columbia, created by legislation in 1934, consisted of three members appointed by the U.S. president: the president of the DC Commissioners (Hazen), the executive officer of the National Capital Park and Planning Commission, and the Architect of the Capitol. Hazen was named the first chairman of the Alley Dwelling Authority in October 1934. The stated purpose of the ADA was to take ten years to access and demolish what were deemed unsanitary and crime-ridden slums. Hazen took charge of issuing annual reports for the ADA until his death in 1941.
The ADA plan was to only demolish homes when new homes had been built to replace them. In September 1938, Hazen requested that more money be budgeted “…which will bring the total number of dwelling units constructed to approximately 3,835, of which 564 will be white, and 3,271 for colored occupancy.”
The Black residents weren’t overtly targeted for removal, but they were forced to leave their homes and thus lose their community as their neighbors were dispersed all over the city. Notably, this was the same destruction of a community that had been seen at Fort Reno.
An example of the alley clearing can be seen in a photo of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Melvin Hazen taken at the O’Brien Court on the 2000 block of E Street in the West End. Hazen is wielding a shovel while Mrs. Roosevelt looks on. That day, October 24, 1935, Mrs. Roosevelt unexpectedly arrived as the O’Brien Court slums, 50 dwellings located at I, 20th and 21st Streets NW, were being demolished.
“I am happy to be here today,” the Mrs. Roosevelt said, “and to congratulate the Alley Dwelling Authority on the work it is doing and to wish it will be able to continue and finish this work.”
Mrs. Roosevelt was less pleased with the DC Commissioners’ oversight of the Blue Plains Home for the Aged and Infirm. The first lady, certainly well known as FDR’s conscience and adviser on social issues, made a surprise visit to the home, an integrated facility in southwest DC for indigent elderly people, in January 1940. After her visit she wrote, “The plant is so old and so utterly inadequate, and the personnel so over burdened with work because of the overcrowding of the institution, that I think anyone visiting it must leave with an aching heart.”
Because of the attention Mrs. Roosevelt gave Blue Plains, Hazen and the other commissioners visited the home for the first time. Hazen’s immediate reaction as quoted in The Washington Post: “…he believed the conditions in the home were not bad enough to be called an ’emergency.'”
“Everything in the District’s old,” Hazen said. “It doesn’t need painting as bad as the District Building at that.”
Nevertheless, Hazen and the other commissioners came up with a five-year plan for improvements, which they explained to Mrs. Roosevelt during a “tea cup conference” at the White House following their visit to Blue Plains. The plan did not meet with her approval. She agreed to personally testify on the matter before the House District Committee – the first time a First Lady had ever testified before a Congressional committee.
“I came away from Blue Plains with a feeling that if that was the conception of the United States of proper care for the aged who were not able to care for themselves we were at a pretty low ebb of civilization,” Mrs. Roosevelt said in her testimony. “It was a sickening feeling that you got from that whole atmosphere.”
Whatever Mrs. Roosevelt’s heartfelt opinions, Hazen was not moved to make major improvements quickly. He waited for funds to be appropriated by Congress.
Despite Hazen seemingly dragging his feet, conditions did improve at Blue Plains by January 1941: The food was better, crowding had been reduced, the WPA (Works Progress Administration) had started recreational and vocational programs. Mrs. Roosevelt reported in her June 3, 1941 “My Day” column, “They tell me that certain very definite improvements have been made out at Blue Plains.”
When he was sworn in as DC commissioner in 1933, he promised that it would be “my purpose to make every effort to improve the service where the city of Washington, and as far as it is within my authority I shall insist upon efficient service and courteous treatment to our citizens.”
His record in his 51 years of public service was mixed, at best. Viewed through the lens of our time – and even his contemporary detractors – he was a proud member of a city bureaucracy that for years acted actively and passively to undermine Black communities. And, locally, in supporting the destruction of Fort Reno, he will be remembered for causing the demolition of a thriving Black neighborhood. His lasting reputation, we can agree, was not an admirable one.