Centennial of Arlington name change

The Washington Star in 1920 put news of the new name of Arlington County on its front page, but gave it just a single paragraph of coverage.

Arlington government officials currently are in the brainstorming phase on plans to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Arlington becoming “Arlington.”

It was on March 17, 1920, that Gov. Westmoreland Davis signed legislation formally changing the county’s name from Alexandria County to Arlington County. The measure drew little flak on its way through the legislative process; patroned by Del. Charles Jessee, it received passage on votes of 59-0 in the House of Delegates and 34-0 in the state Senate.

Jennifer K. Smith, a county-government spokesman, said the government does not plan to let the anniversary go by uncommemorated.

“We are starting to talk about it – brainstorming a little bit,” she said.

Modern-day Arlington had been known as Alexandria County since being established in 1801, the same time the land area – including the town, later city, of Alexandria – was incorporated into the District of Columbia (which would return it to Virginia in the late 1840s). In 1870, the more populated city of Alexandria became independent of the still-rural Alexandria County, meaning 2020 will mark the sesquicentennial of that event as well as the centennial of the name change.

The issue of a name change must have been percolating for a while, although the exact reason for legislative action occurring when it did has been lost to history. (The Washington Star, the dominant regional newspaper of the day, devoted just a single paragraph to the 1920 bill-signing.)

Former Arlington Treasurer Frank O’Leary thinks he has the answer, although he acknowledges it is somewhat unsubstantiated.

According to the version that had been passed down, the Army Air Corps had agreed to fly over the Alexandria Courthouse on Nov. 11, 1919, marking the one-year anniversary of the armistice ending the fighting in World War.

Trouble was, there were two Arlington courthouses (one for the city and one for the county), and the airmen buzzed the wrong one. As a result, county residents were disappointed that the aeronautical spectacle they had anticipated did not materialize, while unsuspecting city residents had reason to fear an airborne invasion was underway.

The name change of 1920 had little practical effect on day-to-day governance; the newly minted Arlington County retained its existing political structure – a three-member, district-based Board of Supervisors – until 1932, when the current county-manager form of government was implemented. The record does not suggest that 1970 brought any noteworthy commemoration of either the 100th anniversary of the 1870 county-city split or the 50th anniversary of the name change.

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