A name is one of the highest honors we can bestow. Babies are often named after parents or other relatives – or sometimes for current popular figures. For instance, there were a lot of little girls named “Hermione” in the 2000s in honor of the “Harry Potter” character.
We also name buildings and streets to commemorate people. And then later, when new information comes to light or majority sentiment changes, we sometimes rue prior decisions.
The issue of removing names of people associated with the Confederacy or segregation has been a contentious topic in Alexandria, as with the rest of the country, for a decade or more.
There was an explosive City Council meeting in September 2016 when impassioned residents almost got out of hand while Council discussed removing the “Appomattox” statue from the intersection of S. Washington and Prince streets. Then Mayor Allison Silberberg quieted the riot and Council voted to remove the statue, which stayed in place until 2020 because General Assembly approval was also required for its removal.
This paper ran a series of award-winning stories in 2018 and 2019 about the brave children and their parents who desegregated Alexandria’s public schools in 1959 – and the terrible price some of them paid – for the 60th anniversary of that event. We also led the way in calling for Alexandria City Public Schools to rename T.C. Williams High School after those stories exposed the extent of his resistance to desegregation.
It seemed unconscionable that a mostly minority school would continue to be named for someone like Williams. To read the series of stories, go to alextimes.com and search for “mcelhatton,” the author’s name.
Which brings us to the current discussion around removing names from streets in Alexandria. We see three key components to this discussion: streets named as resistance to desegregation, the costs associated with renaming and what to do about the name “Lee.”
1. In short, it’s a no-brainer to put all of Alexandria’s streets named as part of resistance to desegregation at the top of the list to reconsider. Specifically, streets named after a 1953 city ordinance passed that required new streets to be named for Confederate generals should be the first ones looked at. What’s remarkable is that this noxious requirement remained on the books for more than 60 years.
2. Despite our sentiment above, there is also a cost to renaming streets. This cost is monetary to both the city and residents on impacted streets. But the cost for residents will extend beyond the financial. There’s a time and hassle cost in changing one’s place of residence on every form, organization, bank account and with delivery companies. There’s also an emotional cost to having your street name changed without voluntarily moving. That’s why buy-in from residents on streets proposed for renaming is important.
3. And then there’s the delicate issue of Robert E. Lee who spent much of his boyhood in Alexandria. How do we handle the congruence of a native son who also led the Confederate Army so effectively that he prolonged the Civil War, with the fact that his name adorns one of Old Town’s loveliest streets? While some would like to contend that the street was named for the Lee family rather Robert E., the 1874 timing of the street being named seems to refute that assertion.
On face value, renaming Lee Street should be an easy call – except that it isn’t.
Names are important. They’re a part of our identity as people and as residents. Who we honor, however, is a clear reflection of what we hold dear.