Councilors mull Jefferson Davis Highway change

Councilors mull Jefferson Davis Highway change

By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)

City councilors showed a willingness to consider changing the name of Jefferson Da- vis Highway, but said they want to hear residents’ views before making a decision.

And a letter from the Virginia Attorney General’s office earlier this year indicates the city could change the name of the street without approval from the Virginia General Assembly.

The city’s ad hoc advisory group on Confederate memo- rials and street names recommended the change for Jefferson Davis Highway, which is the moniker for U.S. Route 1 in the city limits from Potomac Yard into Arlington County, where the name continues.

The group issued its final report late last month, and also recommended the “Appomattox” statue at Prince and South Washington streets not be moved and that a wholesale renaming of city streets named for Confederate figures not be undertaken.

Councilors said the history of Jefferson Davis was one reason to change the name. Davis was president of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War, was been born in Kentucky and had previously represented Mississippi in both houses of Congress.

City Councilor Tim Lovain said the General Assembly’s decision in 1922 to rename the highway after the Confederate leader also is shrouded in controversy.

“I’ve been saying for some time that that was one change that I was strongly inclined to support,” he said. “I just think it’s egregious to have a major thoroughfare in our city named after Jefferson Davis, especially because it certainly looks in the historical record like that name was selected by segregationists, probably as a hostile political act against integration.”

City Councilor John Chap- man said it seems unreasonable to have a major thoroughfare in Alexandria named after Davis, given his apparent lack of a local connection.

“Obviously outside of all the other issues with the Confederacy and the legacy of the Confederacy, for me that’s the [reason] that’s most appealing,” he said. “You have a major highway dedicated to somebody who really didn’t have a whole lot of local impact on Alexandria. If you want to go on the basis of that, you could look for a reason to rename it.”

The process of renaming the road may be a little easier than anticipated, according to a letter sent from the Virginia Attorney General’s office to state Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-30) and obtained by the Times.

According to the opinion by deputy attorney general Jeffrey Bourne, Alexandria can rename its portion of Jefferson Davis Highway because it is part of the Urban Highway System, meaning street naming rights are not reserved for the Virginia Department of Transportation or the Commonwealth Transportation Board.

By contrast, the letter says Arlington County would be unable to rename its section of Jefferson Davis Highway as it is a Primary Highway and therefore is under the jurisdiction of the CTB, which is made up of state transportation officials and legislators.

And while Bourne’s opinion does not fully represent the attorney general’s office’s view, Vice Mayor Jus- tin Wilson said it could be helpful if the city chose to go it alone.

“It definitely helps to not have to request this from Richmond,” he said. “We’ll see. So far, we’ve gotten emails from outside of the city that seem to oppose this, from all over the country and things like that, but most of the reaction I’ve heard from inside the city is either supportive or indifferent.”

City Councilor Del Pepper was more guarded in her opinions on the renaming, and said she has asked City Manager Mark Jinks to pro- vide details on the costs associated with renaming the street for the businesses and residents there, and what kind of disruption it might cause.

“I’m willing to look into it, but I want to know more about what the costs are and what the inconvenience would be,” she said. “That’s what I’m waiting for. How many people would be impacted, and what kind of an inconvenience would it be? I want more details before I’m actually going to commit to one conclusion or another.”

Wilson agreed, and said it will have to factor into the overall conversation about a potential name-change.

“We’ll have to have a discussion both about the concept of renaming the road but also the practicalities of it,” he said. “I think when you look at it though, and look at some of the other streets that have been considered, it’s actually a pretty small number of businesses and residents that are on that section of Jefferson Davis Highway.”

As for a future name for the highway, Mayor Allison Silberberg and Chapman agreed that renaming it after Patrick Henry could be useful on a number of levels, especially since it connects with Patrick and Henry streets in Old Town to the south. Lovain suggested working together with Arlington on a possible name, to further enhance the consistency in street names.

“It’s the first governor, a Revolutionary War hero, we already have Patrick and Henry streets, it makes sense,” Silberberg said. “I feel that this would be a good change, and I think it’s got quite a bit of cachet to live on a street called Patrick Henry.”

City Councilors Paul Smedberg and Willie Bailey did not respond to requests for comment.