When a white gunman opened fire in a Black Charleston, South Carolina, church in June 2015, it set in motion a nationwide soul searching about many aspects of life in the United States.
Each senseless tragedy that occurs in this country is met with some variation of, “How could this happen?” To which, of course, there are many answers, as no horrific event is single-faceted.
This particular tragedy resonated more than most. A group of Black Christians had gathered for an evening bible study when a young white man walked into their church. The Black churchgoers welcomed the young man into their midst, even though – or perhaps because – it was clear he was troubled. He repaid their kindness by opening fire on them, killing nine.
A national outpouring of grief, anger and angst followed. No one who witnessed the memorial of flowers, notes, flags, wreaths and other tributes that were piled in front of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church after the tragedy will ever forget the sight or its cause.
Like many Southern cities, there were numerous vestiges of the Civil War that remained in Alexandria in 2015.
Remarkably, the stretch of Route 1 that runs through this city still bore the name of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The Appomattox statue honoring Alexandria’s Confederate dead stood in the middle of South Washington and Prince Streets. Alexandria’s only high school still bore the name of avowed segregationist T.C. Williams. And Alexandria had dozens of streets that had been deliberately named for Confederates beginning in the 1950s as a result of “massive resistance” to desegregation.
It was finally time for change.
A seven-member task force, established in September 2015, was charged with examining these issues. They recommended removing the name Jefferson Davis from Route 1, which was quickly done. They recommended improved signage to better put The Appomattox statue into context. In June 2020, the Virginia General Assembly ultimately granted permission for removal of The Appomattox, and it vanished one early morning before most people were out and about. The name T.C. Williams was finally removed in July 2021.
Renaming of streets was a bit more problematic, because a process was already in place for changing street names, and that process was initially followed. City leaders gradually became unhappy with the lack of progress on changing names, and after lowering the threshold to 25% of residents needed on change petitions – still with no takers – the current process of Council considering a few names a year was enacted.
The result has been a thoughtful, deliberative process that has taken the concerns and wishes of residents into account. With Saturday’s unanimous City Council vote, four street names lost their Confederate moorings.
Only one street was entirely changed, as North Breckinridge Place will now be called Harriet Jacobs Place. Two other streets were given similar but non-Confederate names, as Early Street was renamed Earley Street after Charity Adams Earley; and Forrest Street will now be Forest Street. In addition, one street kept the same exact name but was rededicated from Jordan Court and Street in honor of Thomasina Jordan.
With these changes, Council has set a precedent to rededicate streets when possible and appropriate, which will cause residents of those streets no disruption. They further set a precedent by changing other names only slightly – away from the Confederates they had honored but close enough that Uber drivers and first responders are unlikely to be confused.
And where there was no viable solution to rededicate or slightly change the name, one street received an entirely new name.
Well done. Council got this one exactly right, and provided a path forward for future changes.