Jefferson Davis Highway name controversy

Jefferson Davis (Library of Congress photo)

The Arlington County government’s efforts to rename its portion of Jefferson Davis Highway could face familiar legislative roadblocks in 2019. But County Board members say they have no interest in forcing a confrontation with the General Assembly on the matter.

As part of its 2019 legislative package, County Board members are asking the General Assembly for permission to rename Arlington’s portion of Jefferson Davis Highway as “Richmond Highway.” That would align Arlington with the city of Alexandria, which recently made the name switch.

Under the vagaries of Virginia law, Alexandria had the power to rename its portion of Jefferson Davis Highway, but Arlington has to seek permission of either the General Assembly (which named the roadway after Davis in the 1920s) or the Commonwealth Transportation Board.

State Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-30th) told County Board members that he wasn’t going to waste time on the issue during the 46-day session unless there was some likelihood of success.

“The only way I’ll put it in is if it has any chance of passage,” said Ebbin, who told Arlington officials he had been polling some of his Republican colleagues to get their views on the matter.

County Board Chairman Katie Cristol said Arlington officials last year had informally approached the Commonwealth Transportation Board on the renaming issue, but “there was not an appetite” on the part of members of that body to act. That put the issue back in the hands of the General Assembly.

As he has in the past, Del. Mark Levine (D-45th) proclaimed that Arlington should replace the road signage itself and dare state officials to do something about it.

“Just change the street signs. There is zero in Virginia law that requires that highway to have those street names,” said Levine, who considers to be flawed an advisory opinion by the office of the state attorney general that argues the opposite.

The reaction from County Board members – who finally appear to realize that their work sessions with legislators attract an audience from across the commonwealth through the magic of the Internet – asked Levine to hush up. Politely, at first.

“You have a slightly different legal interpretation than the one given to us,” Cristol said.

When Levine persisted, County Board Vice Chairman Christian Dorsey pushed back harder.

“We’re interested in not figuring out what we can get away with, but how we can absolutely get the right . . . to name our roads,” he said. “That’s something we don’t want to do in an underhanded way, a backhanded way. We want to be up front about it.”

A Mississippian, Jefferson Davis never achieved the iconic status of the likes of Confederate military leaders Robert E. Lee or J.E.B. Stuart; had no direct ties to Virginia; and never worked to reconcile the nation after the Civil War. Nonetheless, in 1922 the General Assembly was successfully lobbied by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to formally name a highway in his honor.

Toward the tail end of the 2014-18 McAuliffe administration, an online petition to change the name generated several thousand signatures, and a spokesman for the then-governor said McAuliffe would sign name-change legislation in the unlikely event it crossed his desk. It did not.

At the time, the effort couldn’t pick up much backing even from reliably liberal members of the legislature. One of them – Scott Surovell, a Fairfax Democrat – sniffed that there were not “whole lot of people clamoring about it except coffee-shop liberals in Arlington.”

But the action by Alexandria to rename its portion of the road as Richmond Highway (as it also is known in Fairfax County) may boost chances of a bill’s passage in 2019. Hurting the effort could be the Arlington School Board’s decision to strip the name of Robert E. Lee from Washington-Lee High School, a decision that has many conservative downstate legislators channeling Ronald Reagan’s famous line: “There you go again.”

Ebbin suggested that Arlington officials try to enlist the support of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce and Crystal City Business Improvement District in the highway renaming effort. But, Ebbin noted, he wasn’t expecting Amazon – which plans a major influx into the Route 1 corridor – to get involved.

“I don’t think they’ll be taking active political positions” until their economic-incentive package with the state government and local governments is finalized, Ebbin said.

(3) comments

ROBERT ARRINGTON

this is just plain silly just keep it unless we change history books also

Allen Muchnick

Don't all credible American history books already characterize Jefferson Davis as a traitor to the United States of American and a racist defender of African-American enslavement? Moreover, the renaming of U.S. Route 1 in honor of Jefferson Davis was essentially an effort to perpetuate white supremacy and Jim Crow segregation across the southern United States.

Nearly a century after this renaming, it's long past time to stop memorializing this traitorous racist.

Allen Muchnick

I doubt that Amazon or any other forward-thinking business would want an address associated with Jefferson Davis, who was the opposite of a Republican in 1860. Renaming Jefferson Davis Highway should be supported by the Virginia General Assembly on economic development grounds,

Also, I believe there is ample precedent for highways to retain multiple names, so Jefferson Davis Hwy could still co-exist with another name that is placed on street signs and buildings.

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