Your View: Don’t change the name of Jefferson Davis Highway

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Your View: Don’t change the name of Jefferson Davis Highway
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By Ellen Latane Tabb, Alexandria (File photo)

To the editor:
At its June 13 meeting, two members of the city’s ad hoc advisory group on confederate memorials and street names made mistaken statements about Jefferson Davis. Chairwoman Mary Lyman, a Massachusetts native who earlier noted she does not know much history, declared that he was not a Virginian and was guilty of “egregious behavior.” She gave no substantiation for either allegation. And member Eugene Thompson’s objection to honoring him also deserves close scrutiny.

Although Kentucky-born Davis was one of the U.S. Senate’s most distinguished members while representing Mississippi, his family chose to be buried in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery. Thus, Davis has been in Virginia longer than anywhere else. Virginians who cherish our history proudly claim this American hero and regularly celebrate his June birthday with ceremonies.

Mr. Thompson objected that Davis was unworthy of having a street named in his honor because after the Civil War, he failed to pledge allegiance to the Union like others, including Robert E. Lee.

But Davis’ case was unique. President Abraham Lincoln had openly declared that he would pardon all others, but never Davis, despite “with malice toward none and charity for all.”

Such bitter hatred was lamentable because Davis gave decades of outstanding service to the U.S. before the war. He was a distinguished West Pointer, a hero of the Battle of Veracruz, a persuasive orator in the Senate who tried to avert war, and a visionary, who as secretary of war created the formidable military machine Lincoln used.

Davis’ health was poor, so he initially declined to be president of the Confederacy, but was persuaded by an appeal to his sense of duty. That onerous burden further damaged his health, and he almost died under the two years of imprisonment without trial at Fort Monroe, Va. Only his wife’s persistent public statements about his mistreatment and pleadings from the public saved his life.

Notably, Lincoln’s successors never pardoned Lee, although he was beloved in both North and South after the war. Davis expected the same fate. Should a man pledge allegiance to an obviously corrupt government wreaking additional ruin with impunity on his helpless countrymen? Why give his enemies fodder for ridicule? What would Thompson or any of us do in these circumstances?

No group member asked and no one reported how many businesses and residents would be affected before voting to change the name of Jefferson Davis Highway in the city.

Members declared that fewer people would be inconvenienced than by changing other Confederate street names. Kudos to Molly Fannon, the only dissenting vote, who thought the majority’s inability to state a guiding principle for treating this street name differently from others made a change inappropriate.

Shame on members who thought forcing occupants into a name change — without a statement of their approval and based on members’ incomplete or mistaken statements of relevant facts — is justified. Because of these serious errors, this recommendation’s validity and usefulness is greatly compromised. City council should reject it.

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