By Jordan Brasher, Doctoral student, geography, University of Tennessee-Knoxville (File photo)
To the editor:
Since the Charleston massacre last year, Confederate monuments, memorials and place names have been reignited as battlegrounds for contesting who belongs in the South and can lay claim to its heritage on the memorial landscape.
The city of Alexandria faces a similar controversy with Jefferson Davis Highway. The city voted in September to try to move a statue of a Confederate soldier from the intersection of Prince and South Washington streets as well as to change the name of Jefferson Davis Highway due to its affiliation with the Confederacy and slavery.
Davis, after all, was the president of the Confederate States of America. But the removal of the statue is subject to state laws that prohibit the movement or removal of war memorials, so the city’s hands are tied in relation to the monument.
What they do have some control over, though, is the highway name. The city’s task force studying the issue characterized the statue as “a sad and unarmed soldier, not a heroic figure” and recommended the city change the highway’s name.
When considering which name should replace Jefferson Davis on the roadway, the city should reflect carefully on the replacement name and critically consider the process by which it is selected. The process of selecting a new name should be one that considers the input of the community, especially those residents whom the Davis name represents the least.
If the process is not open, inclusive and democratic, the city runs the risk of making the same mistake that Tulsa, Okla. made in 2013, when they decided to de-commemorate — but not change the name of — Brady Street.
Brady Street originally honored Wyatt “Tate” Brady, a leader in the Ku Klux Klan and a night watchman during the Tulsa Race Riots and massacre of 1921. Rather than rename the street for some- one else, the city simply changed whom the street name would commemorate — Matthew Brady, renowned for his photographs of Civil War battlefields but who had no connections to the city of Tulsa.
This effort at compromise was ultimately misplaced and does not engage with the difficult work of coming to grips with the city’s past racial violence. Even in deciding to maintain the Brady name, Tulsa could have selected St. Elmo Brady as a more appropriate surrogate.
St. Elmo Brady was the first African American man to earn a PhD in chemistry and left a legacy that included cutting-edge research on halogen compounds and generous fundraising for historically black colleges and universities across the South. St. Elmo Brady had about as much in common with Tulsa as Matthew Brady, but presented a very different memorial narrative.
The point is that the selection of a new name presents an important opportunity to engage with the difficult work of remembrance. Alexandria should take care to avoid the pitfalls of compromise that led Tulsa to miss an opportunity to offer a symbolic gesture of reconciliation, and ultimately prioritize engaging in the difficult work of shaping its city’s identity through its memorial landscape.
These are important questions to consider ahead of the process: Who will be involved in the Jefferson Davis Highway name change process? What kind of message does the city want to communicate?
Take the opportunity to involve local African-Americans and other community members in the selection of the new name.