Name-change recommended for Jefferson Davis Highway

Name-change recommended for Jefferson Davis Highway

By Chris Teale (File photo)

The resident group tasked by city council with examining Alexandria’s Confederate memorials and street names recommended the city rename Jefferson Davis Highway — U.S. Route 1 — in its final report, issued last week.

City council established the ad hoc advisory group on Con- federate memorials and street names in September 2015 and directed it to make recommendations on four topics: whether the “Appomattox” statue should remain in the intersection of South Washington and Prince streets; the fate of the name of Jefferson Davis High- way; whether streets named after Confederate generals and military leaders in the city should be renamed; and a policy on the flying of Confederate flags on city property.

The report recommends that the “Appomattox” statue remain in place with additional context on the story behind it, and that a wholesale renaming of streets is not necessary. Instead, the group recommended that council consider individual requests for new street names under existing processes.

In its report, the group said it does not believe any further action is required on the flying of flags on city property. When they voted to establish the group, city councilors also voted to no longer allow the flying of the Confederate National Flag on city property on Robert E. Lee’s birthday or Confederate Memorial Day.

Discussions about references to the Confederacy came in the wake of the shooting deaths of nine people at a Bible study meeting at a historic black church in Charles- ton, S.C. Dylann Roof, who awaits trial for the massacre, had been photographed with the Confederate battle flag and at a number of Confederate museums and monuments.

The advisory group had seven members, most from other city commissions, met five times and heard from more than 60 speakers and 150 online commenters.

Changing the name of Jefferson Davis Highway within the city limits is the group’s most drastic suggested change, and would require approval from the Virginia General Assembly. In its report, the group said Davis never renewed his allegiance to the Union after serving as president of the Confederate States of America, and that he has little local connection.

Davis was born in Kentucky and represented Mississippi in both houses of Congress. The report said the stretch of U.S. Route 1 was designated by the Virginia General Assembly to honor him as part of an intended Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway from Washington, D.C. to points south and west.

“For these reasons, and because of the odd street configuration, changing the name of the ‘Jefferson Davis’ section of Route 1 in the city may be more feasible and less controversial than renaming other city streets,” the report reads. “There will, however, be significant costs to local businesses and residents in terms of deeds and other legal changes, as well as in switching over other records and advertising using the current name.”

The group’s report recommends that the “Appomattox” statue remain unmoved, but with additional efforts taken to add context to the monument. The statue is of a lone, unarmed Confederate soldier facing south, marking the spot where soldiers from Alexandria fled the arrival of Union troops to join the Confederate Army in 1861. It commemorates Alexandrians who died for the Confederacy.

The statue’s status as a war memorial means it requires state approval to be moved.

At the group’s final meeting on June 13, a great deal of discussion focused on whether council should ask its delegation in Richmond to prepare legislation that, if approved, would allow the statue to be moved. Group members Eugene Thompson and LaDonna Sanders said it was primarily due to the statue being a traffic hazard, but both noted the symbolism could not be ignored either.

Group chairwoman Mary Lyman said any efforts to try and pass a bill allowing the statue to be moved might be difficult on a number of levels.

“Asking for the legislation would be a futile gesture, and I’m not sure how our delegation would feel about it,” she said. “They have certain items they try to get done, and I’m not sure they would want to spend the effort on one that doesn’t have any hope of passing.”

Instead, the report says its place in history should be respected and emphasized, and that no further action is needed.

“Even familiar places connected to the conflict such as Fort Ward have been largely reconstructed long after the war ended,” the report reads. “Given that what sets apart Alexandria regionally (and as a historical tourism destination) is its declared dedication to preserving and retrieving its fragile and endangered historic fabric, any decision to review the Appomattox statue must be understood in that context as well.”

Jefferson Davis Highway is the only street recommended for rechristening, stopping short of what the group described as a “wholesale renaming of streets in the city named after Confederate figures.”

In an inventory prepared by the Office of Historic Alexandria, 33 streets were determined as having been named for Confederate figures, while another 31 were determined as having possible connections. The report notes that the city already has abandoned the policy of naming additional streets for Confederate figures, first adopted in 1951 following the annexation of the West End.

Instead, the group recommended that if individuals object to a specific street name, they should bring it to the attention of city council, and that the process for doing so be better publicized.

Councilors will officially receive the report and its recommendations at a legislative meeting after they return from summer recess next month, with any next steps or formal decisions to be made by council after that time.