No more dead Confederates

By Erich Wagner (Photo/Erich Wagner)

The names Beauregard, French, Gordon and Van Dorn have two things in common. First, they’re streets in the West End. And second, they’re all names of Confederate Civil War generals, none of which are from Alexandria, let alone Virginia.

City Councilor Justin Wilson wants to strip a 1950s ordinance that mandates new city streets running north-south be named after rebel military leaders, along with other laws that he says are antiquated or irrelevant today.

But where did the regulation come from? A majority of local historians and history buffs were flummoxed as to the origin of the rule, which was last tweaked in 1963.

“You know, I really can’t say,” said Lance Mallamo, director of the Office of Historic Alexandria.

“That is way before my time,” said city preservationist Al Cox. “But, you know, Alexandria was a sleepy southern town for a large part of the first half of the 20th century.”

While Wilson stumbled onto the measure during a sweep of city code for outdated ordinances, Amy Bertsch, the city sheriff’s office spokeswoman as well as a local history buff, has found a likely backstory for the naming convention.

A 1952 article in The Washington Post, written by the aptly named Robert E. Lee Baker, said the ordinance came after the city annexed West End neighborhoods in 1951. The regulation ensured that newly acquired streets were named consistently.

“Names and numbers in many city areas are a hodgepodge affair,” wrote Baker. “Visitors are confused. So are many longtime residents. The post office is a long-suffering complaint.”

But Audrey Davis, director of the Alexandria Black History Museum, noted that a few of the areas that have streets named in honor of those who fought for southern secession were black enclaves, particularly in the Fort Ward neighborhood.

Adrienne Washington, president of the Fort Ward and Seminary African American Descendants Society, said it’s time to open up street naming to a more diverse crowd. While it’s not a top priority for her organization — the group is busy weighing in on a historic study on the Fort Ward community and fighting to preserve family graves at Fort Ward Park — she said the city must do more to make sure its geography reflects its diverse population.

“Ferdinand Day has [Ferdinand Day Drive], but that’s basically just a cul-de-sac,” she said. “We’ve got bigger fish to fry right now … but it’s about time we opened it up to different people.”

Wilson, whose proposal also would repeal laws against cohabitation and sidewalk bootblacks — shoeshines, to those of us in the 21st century — was surprised that the street-naming rule has attracted so much attention.

“I mean, Taney Avenue is named after the guy who wrote the Dred Scott decision, which is the basically the worst person you can honor with a street name, and T.C. Williams was an avowed segregationist,” Wilson said. “But it is hilarious to me that of the 10 measures in that package, this is the only one people are paying attention to. I thought sex would trump the Confederates, but I guess Confederates trump everything.”

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(3) Readers Comments

  1. How about Justin Wilson devoting more time to things that could really help–such as not wasting 600,000 taxpayer dollars on stadium lights. He could make a major improvement in Alexandria education by getting more fathers to live at home. Think about it-

  2. Kudos to Wilson. I live in Alexandria and pay an awful lot in taxes. I am also a descendant of slaves who is proud of the promise our country has realized over time. I don’t want to forget the past, and have no problem with the streets that have already been named. But now that this has been noticed, it would be shameful to allow a law to remain on the books that limits the honor of some future street names to the ancestors of only one small subset of Alexandria’s residents. This should be an easy vote. Don’t know who you are Dr. Gilmore, but your oath is to “Do no harm.” Ordinances like this harm by sending a message of exclusion. That isn’t the Alexandria I know and love.

  3. 1. There might be a lot more to this. Obviously, there is a well-established tradition of naming streets and roads for past figures of the Confederacy or otherwise notable names in Virginia. I use Lee-Jackson Highway (U.S. 11) instead of I-81 for annual drives in from the Midwest to see relatives in Richmond. My wife grew up in Arlington and recalls Reb-based street naming. Similarly, Illinois has major street-roads named for the likes of Gen. Phil Sheridan, and Grant is famous in places including San Francisco. Is there an ordinance or statute about this in other parts of the Old Dominion, or elsewhere, too? Tradition’s one thing; exclusionary law, another.

    2. Old ordinances anywhere can also evoke mirth. Evanston, Illinois, still had one in 1970 from way back when sidewalks were board slats above mud streets and saloons abounded in or near a city that went “dry” for the next century; it prohibited “sleeping _under_ sidewalks.”

    3. A colleague recently noted tepid attention to lingering Confederate imagery in mainstream media commentary about the movie “Twelve Years a Slave.” We will web-publish something on this in Masthead on about Feb. 15.

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