City council approves Jefferson Davis Highway name change

City council approves Jefferson Davis Highway name change

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.