Our View: Advisory group gets it right on Confederate symbols

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Our View: Advisory group gets it right on Confederate symbols
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Good compromises are like a Venn diagram of circles with a large overlapping area — the shared middle dwarfs the isolated outer rungs. We think the final report from the advisory group examining Confederate references and symbols in Alexandria is just such a compromise.

The seven-member advisory group was established in September 2015 as part of a nationwide focus on Confederate symbols after an apparent white supremacist allegedly shot nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C.

It met five times, heard from more than 60 speakers and solicited more than 150 online comments. Issues before the group included the flying of the Confederate flag on city property, potential renaming of streets bearing names of Confederate leaders and whether to move the “Appomattox” statue located at the intersection of Prince and South Washington streets.

The group’s major recommendation was to remove Jefferson Davis’s name from the portion of U.S. Route 1 in Alexandria that is not already named for Patrick Henry. We think this is a good move. Davis was the president of the Confederacy, had no local ties and was unrepentant to the end. His name should go.

We also think resisting the urge to do a wholesale purge of all things Confederate was the prudent decision, for two main reasons.

The first is basic practicality. It would be enormously expensive and time consuming to replace street signs throughout much of Alexandria’s West End, the location of most Confederate-named streets. Many thousands of residents and businesses would have new addresses and would in turn have to notify anyone with which they do business or correspond of the change.

In the case of moving the “Appomattox” statue, approval — that is unlikely to be granted — would be required from the Virginia General Assembly.

The second reason relates to Alexandria’s history, and the prominent role our past plays in our present. Our local economy is driven by our history and the tourism it generates.

Yes, most people come to see our links to George Washington and Colonial America, but Civil War history is part of our past as well. Like it or not, Virginia seceded from the Union, and while Union troops took over much of the city as part of the Defenses of Washington, hundreds of city residents fought in the war, mostly for the South.

The Appomattox statue is not that of a horse-straddling, conquering warrior, but rather a mournful, defeated foot soldier. While it commemorates those who fought on the side of slavery — and as such is understandably offensive to some — it also makes plain that this soldier’s side lost the war. The advisory group’s recommendation to leave the statue but add wording that provides better context seems appropriate.

Likewise, utilizing and better publicizing existing processes to consider name changes of streets on a case-by-case basis seems reasonable. And the Confederate flag issue was resolved last year, when city council decided to discontinue flying it on Robert E. Lee’s birthday and Confederate Memorial Day.

There are surely some Alexandrians who are upset the advisory group did not recommend removal of the Appomattox and wholesale elimination of Confederate names from city signs. Likewise, some will surely be miffed that anything might change at all. Over time, we think a few more street names of leading Confederate generals may need to go.

But for now, we think this is a compromise that most Alexandrians can live with. On divisive issues like this, the more of us inside the overlapping Venn oval the better.

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