Residents divided over petition to rename Lee Street

Residents divided over petition to rename Lee Street
Photo/Cody Mello-Klein

By Cody Mello-Klein |

Residents of Lee Street were surprised to hear a knock on their doors a few weeks ago. Upon opening their doors, residents met Alex Sprague, founder of Reconstruct Alexandria, or one of his volunteers, who were out collecting signatures for a petition to rename the Old Town street.

For some residents, the news came as a welcome surprise and a step toward removing Confederate namesakes from the city’s streets and honoring figures or ideas they deem more worthy. For others, the petition represented an attempt to erase the city’s connection to commander of the Confederate Army Robert E. Lee, who grew up in Alexandria and has long been a focal point of the city’s history tourism.

Sprague, who has lived in the Carlyle neighborhood since 2016, said he was inspired to start Reconstruct Alexandria, a campaign to rename streets in the city that are named after Confederate, segregationist or controversial figures, after the election of President Joe Biden.

“I’ve always loved this town for wanting to see changes to what’s going on, particularly with our streets,” Sprague said. “… For me personally, the idea just feels good enough because we’re doing more than just taking out a bad street name. I feel like by introducing a new one we’re starting to send awareness messages.”

Conversely, several residents said that keeping the name Lee Street would signal that the city acknowledges and is engaging with its complicated history.

Donald Holley, who has lived on Lee Street since 2009, expressed fear that “efforts to sanitize the names of streets, structures and other local areas will only diminish our ability to learn from our complex history.”

“There is no doubt that the history of our country, like the rest of the world, is filled with moments of both greatness and sadness,” Holley said. “We can only hope that by preserving and passing along every aspect of this history, both the good and the bad, we might be able to provide future generations with the perspective and wisdom required to continue our progress towards a more perfect Union.”

The petition to rename Lee Street was started by Sprague’s friend, Alexandria resident Huayra Forster, who has proposed replacing Lee Street with Wanishi Street, derived from a Piscataway word for “thank you.”

Photo/Cody Mello-Klein

“It’s [been] an entire lifelong waiting for people to be seeing our streets honoring an actual tribe instead of these Confederates that wanted to take all that freedom away,” Sprague said.

Sprague is overseeing the petition process, which, if the petition reaches the signature threshold established by the city, would eventually result in a vote by City Council on whether to change Lee Street’s name.

Typically, the city requires that 75% of property owners on a street that is being considered for a renaming sign a petition asking for change, according to Tony LaColla, land use services division chief in the Department of Planning and Zoning. After the signatures have been secured, the city reviews the application, determines the validity of the signatures and then goes to the council naming committee, which includes City Council members Del Pepper and John Chapman.

The naming committee reviews the staff report and determines whether the proposed new name and the former name are appropriate for a renaming based on a set of criteria. If that criteria is met, the committee passes the application along to the Planning Commission, which holds a public hearing and makes a recommendation to council. City Council holds its own public hearing and makes a decision to adopt or reject the new name.

However, according to LaColla, the city is in the middle of adopting a separate policy for street names that have explicit connections to controversial figures.

“It’s essentially the same process, the same criteria, as we currently have, however the petition threshold is much lower. It’s only 25% of property owners as opposed to 75% of property owners.” LaColla said. “However, because we have lowered the threshold, what we’re proposing is that [the applicant] hold at least one community meeting – that can be in person, virtual or a combination – to explain to the community why they’re proposing a street renaming, provide some historic background, take public comment, that type of thing.”

The application to rename Lee Street would fall into this category, LaColla said, despite several residents who contended it’s not clear which Lee the street was named after. Many agree with the historic record that it was named after Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary Anna Custis Lee, both of whom spent considerable time in the city, but some argued that the street was named after Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, Robert E. Lee’s father and the ninth governor of Virginia.

The Office of Historic Alexandria compiled an inventory of Confederate street names in 2016 and updated the list in June 2021. The list now includes more than 30 street names that have been specifically pegged as being named after Confederates, including Lee Street. The list notes that the street, which was originally named Water Street, was renamed Lee Street “upon the death of Mrs. Robert E. Lee in 1874,” four years after the death of Robert E. Lee in 1870.

Local historian Ruth Lincoln Kaye more directly tied the namesake of Lee Street to Robert E. Lee in her 1972 book, “Alexandria: A Composite History.”

Photo/Cody Mello-Klein

In a comprehensive list of Old Town street names and their origins, Kaye wrote that Lee Street was originally named Water Street because, at the time, “it was next to the water’s edge,” referring to the Potomac River. The first reference of Water Street was made in city records in 1760. According to Kaye, the street was later renamed, “probably in 1870, the year Virginia was returned to the Union, and also the year of General Lee’s death.”

While there is not consensus among historians about why the street was renamed, it is generally agreed that the street was renamed shortly after the death of Lee and his wife.

As Sprague continues collecting signatures for his petition, the conversation around the concept of renaming Lee Street has revealed divisions among its residents. Although opposition and support are evident across Lee Street, Sprague said he has generally found patterns among residents on the north and south sides of the street.

North Lee Street residents – and some members of the business community – overwhelmingly expressed support for renaming the street, according to Sprague.

“I’ve been waiting for someone to come and do this,” one North Lee Street resident, who wished to remain anonymous, said of the petition. “This is about more than just a name. It’s about what and who we choose to honor in Alexandria.”

Meanwhile, many residents on South Lee Street have been adamant in their opposition to renaming, citing a broad spectrum of reasons.

Longtime resident Jonathan Wilbor, who has lived on South Lee Street for about 50 years, contended that Robert E. Lee is a name worth honoring.

“Lee was a man of great honor. He was a great warrior, and I’m proud to have our street named after him,” Wilbor said.

Wilbor contested that the petition was predicated on the “misunderstanding” that the Confederacy attempted to secede from the Union not over slavery but states’ rights.

“Don’t demonize the people who fought for the South. They fought for what they believed in, and it was not slavery – it was states’ rights,” Wilbor said. “They have a right to decide what they did or did not want to do. Maybe slavery was a little trigger for it, but it was not the real issue.”

Civil War historians generally agree that while most Confederate soldiers fighting in the Civil War were not slaveholders, since many of them were young men who had little in the way of personal wealth, there’s no doubt that the Confederacy’s political leaders saw protection of slavery as one of the core reasons for the war. The soldiers themselves enlisted for a number of reasons, including the defense of their home and property – including slaves – from Northern armies. According to the National Park Services’ Appomattox Court House site, “Whether their families owned slaves or not, many believed that two fundamental aspects of Southern society, white liberty and black slavery, were under threat by a Federal government dominated by the North.”

The primary cause of the Civil War was “the increasing polarization of the country between the free states and the slave states over issues of slavery, especially the expansion of slavery,” James McPherson, a Civil War historian and author, told the Pacific Standard.

“When you go back and you look at the actual documents, many people have said since then that it was about states’ rights, but really the only significant state right that people were arguing about in 1860 was the right to own what was known as slave property — property and slaves unimpeded — and to be able to travel with that property anywhere that you wanted to,” Adam Goodheart, historian and author of “1861,” told NPR.

Some residents opposed the petition based on the logistical complications for property owners whenever their street is renamed.

“You have people who are going to need to change their driver’s licenses, change bills over, change their registration, prescriptions, stationary,” LaColla said. “If you have a business, there’s going to need to be changes to advertising. All of this takes time, all of it takes money. Some people might not be so happy with the time they’re going to have to put in or the money involved.”

Sprague said he is committed to securing the signatures necessary to rename Lee Street, despite opposition from some residents. According to Sprague, renaming Lee Street would be the first step in Reconstruct Alexandria’s more comprehensive effort to rename streets in the city.

“We’re looking at like 30 streets that need a renaming. In fact, we actually might see a renaming of Janney’s Lane before we even see Lee renamed because we only need six or seven more signatures for that one,” Sprague said. “… I think this is only the beginning of a magnificent fight for equality and awareness.”