Jefferson Davis Highway name controversy

Jefferson Davis (Library of Congress photo)

While its neighbor to the south may have an end-run around the General Assembly in efforts to rename Jefferson Davis Highway, Arlington officials appear stuck – needing to win approval from the legislature before slapping a new name on the north-south U.S. Route 1 within its borders.

The issue of removing the name of the Confederacy’s lone president from the highway, where it has been affixed for more than 90 years, popped up in the mid-August news when a commission impaneled by the Alexandria City Council recommended that Davis’s name be stripped from portions of Route 1 in the city’s borders.

Media reports suggested that city leaders would need to gain General Assembly approval to make such a change, but that may not be true.

Alexandria’s charter, which dates to 1932, gives city officials the authority to “name streets, roads and alleys, except for primary highways.”

In response to a request made by state Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-30th), the Virginia Attorney General’s office in February issued an advisory opinion that Alexandria had the power to expunge Davis from highway signs, based on the city’s charter and the fact that, when running through Alexandria, the road is not classified as a primary highway.

“I conclude that the charter’s grant of authority to name and rename ‘streets’ applies to Jefferson Davis Highway in Alexandria,” Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Bourne responded to Ebbin.

But, Bourne said, the same power does not extend to Arlington, both because the county does not have a charter and because Jefferson Davis Highway in the county is classified as a primary highway and its name therefore is controlled either by the General Assembly or the Commonwealth Transportation Board. (Bourne declined to venture an opinion which of those two bodies had ultimate say on the matter.)

Bourne has his opinion, but Del. Mark Levine (D-45th) voices a differing one. An attorney himself, Levine reads state law as allowing Arlington officials to unilaterally change the name if they wish.

“Though I admit it’s convoluted, I continue to think as I do that Arlington can do this,” Levine told the Sun Gazette. “I think it’s at least an open question . . . an interesting legal question. I like looking at puzzles.”

Without proposing an alternate name, Arlington County Board members last year included stripping Jefferson Davis’s name from the highway in the government’s package of legislative priorities for the 2016 session. But the effort seemed half-hearted at best, as no member of the General Assembly delegation picked up the ball and filed a bill.

Ebbin thinks there’s no sense in trying in 2017, although he holds open the possibility of doing so later, if Alexandria decides to take action.

Ebbin said he’d also like groups such as the Crystal City Business Improvement District, Arlington Chamber of Commerce and Arlington Historical Society to have the chance to weigh in before moving forward.

“It’s a sensitive issue,” he said.

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. The group also scored successes in other states, and not simply in the South.

Last year, an online petition to change Jefferson Davis Highway in Virginia generated several thousand signatures, and a spokesman for Gov. McAuliffe said he would sign name-change legislation in the unlikely event it crossed his desk.

But others – and not just conservatives – thought the effort a waste of time.

There’s “not a whole lot of people clamoring about it except coffee-shop liberals in Arlington,” Scott Surovell, a Fairfax Democrat and one of the most liberal members of the General Assembly, pungently noted at the time.

Ebbin’s preference? Call the entire stretch of asphalt “Richmond Highway,” as it already is known in Fairfax County.

Selecting another name, perhaps of a political or historical figure more popular in Northern Virginia than Jefferson Davis, would only serve to raise hackles in Richmond.

“I don’t think we need to antagonize anyone,” Ebbin said. “I don’t want to engage in a hollow exercise.”

Levine said he’d be willing to patron legislation to change the name, if there is community consensus in Arlington to do so. Like Ebbin, he thinks using one of the traditional alternate names for the highway, rather than imposing a new one, is preferable.

“Coming up with a new name is pushing it a lot,” Levine said.

Then again, Levine suggested Arlington officials could simply circumvent the attorney general’s opinion, change the name unilaterally and let the chips fall where they may.

“If they want to change it, they should, and see who says ‘boo’,” Levine said.