City council approves Jefferson Davis Highway name change

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By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)

City councilors voted unanimously Saturday to change the name of Jefferson Davis High- way within city limits, and will ask permission from the Virginia General Assembly to move the so-called “Appomattox” statue out of South Washington Street.

Renaming Jefferson Davis Highway — a stretch of U.S. Route 1 that begins in Potomac Yard and goes north into Arlington County — was a recommendation of an ad hoc resident group tasked with examining changes to the city’s Confederate memorials and references.

But council’s decision to request permission to move the statue, located in the intersection of Prince and South Washington streets, goes beyond the group’s recommendations, which advocated leaving the statue in place. “Appomattox” has stood at that site since 1889, and under state law requires approval from Richmond because it is a war memorial.

The need for General Assembly approval for any change weighed heavily on councilors. The statue is owned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, so a move also would require that group’s assent, and the suggested new location by councilors was about 20 feet away at The Lyceum, on the southwest corner of the intersection.

But there was reluctance to try to move the statue, in part because of the difficult political environment for such a proposal in Richmond. Earlier this year, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) vetoed a bill that would have prevented local governments from removing Confederate monuments.

City councilors also grappled with how best to use the statue as an educational opportunity.

“I think it is a terrific teaching point that we are not all equal yet,” said City Councilor John Chapman. “We have not sewn up our wounds, whether it’s civil conflict or racial conflict. We’re not there yet.”

“My goal is how do we tell a broader tale of our history and not just one part of it?” said Vice Mayor Justin Wilson. “I think we have the opportunity here and elsewhere in the city, so for me it’s not a question necessarily about whether the statue goes or does not go. It’s a question of how do we broaden that story and how do we broaden how we tell that history?”

With its vote, council directed city staff to begin discussions with the city’s General Assembly delegation and the United Daughters on a possible relocation. A position on a new siting may end up in the city’s legislative agenda which will be finalized later this year. The General Assembly reconvenes in January.

The decision to rename Jefferson Davis Highway received unanimous support from councilors, with several suggestions forthcoming about a possible new name. Mayor Allison Silberberg suggested naming it Patrick Henry Street after the Revolutionary War hero who lends his name to U.S. Route 1 as it passes through Old Town.

Wilson suggested renaming it Richmond Highway to be consistent with Fairfax County. While councilors seemed broadly in favor of removing the Davis moniker, the reception was more mixed from members of the public who testified.

“In essence, we don’t like this man’s past and don’t like drawing attention to it,” said Gail Niemack. “A man who was very surprised to learn he was going to be president of the Confederacy. Alexandria, this wonderful city, seems like it is working to hide history.”

Local residents Richard Merritt and Jim Bender suggested renaming the street after black Alexandrians who have made a difference in the city’s history.

City Councilor Willie Bailey said the significance of giving the street a new name goes far beyond the present day and outweighs any cost associated. In a staff report, it is estimated that changing the street signs on Jefferson Davis Highway will cost around $27,000.

“I can honestly say, you can personally raise my taxes until it’s paid for, to satisfy my parents, my grandparents, my ancestors,” he said. “To satisfy them, personally raise my taxes until it’s paid for.”

With council’s approval, a public consultation process will follow ahead of choosing a new name for the thoroughfare. Typically, city staff reviews a renaming request then sends its recommendation to the planning commission, with approval required from that body and city council. City Manager Mark Jinks said that general process will be followed, but staff will include a more elaborate public input process.

The subject of Jefferson Davis and his role in the Confederacy brought the only real flashpoint of the hearing, as resident Bernard Byrne described Davis as a “tragic hero” who did not know that slavery was morally wrong and who maintained that se- cession was legal. Chapman and Bailey vehemently disagreed with that sentiment.

“It wasn’t that these men and women didn’t know that slavery was wrong,” Chapman said. “That’s totally factually incorrect. Folks made choices. Choices were made about how they wanted to carry on their economy and run and build their nation. That’s fact.”

“To try to say you do not understand that owning someone, I don’t care how long ago it was, you’re owning someone,” Bailey said. “I don’t understand even back then how you can’t realize it’s wrong to own someone.”

In keeping with the advisory group’s recommendations, council elected not to undertake a wholesale renaming of other streets that may have been named after significant Confederate figures. City Councilor Tim Lovain encouraged residents to petition council for name changes under current city processes, and to help add more historical context to street names.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. I’m a native. Grew up in Arlandria. Went to Cora Kelly Elementary and Parker-Gray Intermediate. Delivered newspapers Daily News, Alexandria Gazette, Washington Post from Glebe to Russell Rd to Mt Vernon Ave to Jeff Davis Hwy. Played baseball at Simpson stadium. Played in Four Mile Run. Took the 13 bus (AB&W) up on Jeff Davis Hwy to get in and out of DC.
    No one local ever called it Route 1 when talking about neighborhood.
    It was Jeff Davis Hwy.
    Route 1 was anything south of Alexandria!
    You are robbing Alexandria of it’s history in order to appease someone with an agenda that doesn’t include neighborhood.

  2. Thinking about those ‘confederate’ statues…Most likely surprising to my friends who know me as an avid civil rights/equal rights proponent….I am very torn about the idea of tearing down the statue in the center of Old Town Alexandria, VA., at the corners of Washington St. and Prince St. The statue is entitled “Appomattox”, created by sculptor M. Caspar Buberl and commissioned by the United Confederate Veterans of Alexandria in 1889. The statue was modeled after a painting of the same title that shows a lone soldier viewing the aftermath of the battle of Appomattox, where Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.
    This is not a statue honoring a “leader” of the confederacy, the soldier is not an officer on a charging steed, brandishing a sword. Instead, the figure stands facing south with his arms crossed. His wide-brimmed hat is clasped in his right hand and the unarmed soldier is looking down toward the ground with a pensive, sad expression on his face.
    The base of the statue reads “Erected to the memory of the Confederate dead of Alexandria, Va. by their Surviving Comrades, May 24th 1889.” The base also bears the names of those from the city of Alexandria who died during the conflict. It doesn’t say “Hooray” for the Confederacy, it’s not in front of an official state building or city hall, there’s no confederate flag displayed. I was told it is the northern- most statue in the country to the Confederacy.
    The statue occupies the spot where a local confederate regiment mustered to retreat from the city just before Union troops seized Alexandria in 1861. The occupation of Alexandria lasted for the duration of the war; the longest military occupation by Union troops of any town during the entire conflict. The city was used as a main base for supplies, troop transfer, and other logistics, as well as to protect Washington, DC. Alexandria also became an important center for care of the wounded and sick. By the end of the war, more than 30 military hospitals were located in Alexandria, with 6,500 beds. Surgeons, nurses, orderlies, cooks, and ambulance drivers came to Alexandria to tend to the patients. Relief workers, volunteers, and worried family members flocked to the hospitals to care for the wounded.
    I have always been a history buff; I was particularly fascinated by that statue when first seeing it in 1993, when I moved to Alexandria. I already knew that Virginia was one of the “border” states where families were torn apart, brother against brother, some joining the Union Army, most joining the Confederacy. Even when learning about the Civil War in grade school, that particular fact made me very sad. But it also made me keenly aware of the horrors of that conflict (and any civil war).
    On Christmas Eve 1862, Julia Wilbur, a Quaker from Rochester, NY (my home town), came to Alexandria as a Freedmen’s aid worker. In a letter to a friend in Rochester she wrote: “You at a distance cannot imagine what a place this is…last Friday 700 wounded were (moved)…from the boats to the hospitals….Among all those wounded, suffering men, I heard not a single groan nor a complaint.”*
    Recently, the point has been made that the hundreds of statues across the country “honoring” the leaders, generals, segregationists etc., of the Civil War, were not put up directly after the war, but in the 1920’s to the 1960’s; years after the civil war ended. They were erected to honor segregationists and to ‘celebrate’ Jim Crow; but mostly to remind African-Americans that “you are still not equal”. “Separate but Equal’ was a farce, and everyone knew it….so I am all for those statues coming down.
    However, this particular statue is a reminder of the costs of war. It is at a historic corner and it was put there for a reason. The statue in fact, commemorates the END of the war at Appomattox. So I ask, could we not add additional context to the base, explaining its significance, so that children learn from the past, and so we can use it to explain to them the history of the incredible horrors happening today? D.S. Marvin
    *Source: Letter from Julia Wilbur to Anna Barnes December 22-24, 1862. From the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society Papers, 1851-1868, William L. Clements Library, the University of Michigan. Julia Wilbur, a relief worker from Rochester, NY, came to Alexandria during the Civil War. She kept a detailed diary from the 1840s through her death in 1895. Transcribed by Alexandria Archaeology, 2013-2014, from the originals in the Quaker Collection, Haverford College, PA.

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