Jefferson Davis Highway

It’s a pronouncement from government that may sound vaguely familiar: If you like your Jefferson Davis Highway, you get to keep your Jefferson Davis Highway.

In acting April 25 to seek a change of the name of U.S. Route 1 as it runs through Arlington, county officials acknowledged there really isn’t going to be any negative impact to those who want to keep the name Jefferson Davis Highway (which has been in place for 96 years) in their hearts or on their addresses.

“No street numbers will be changed, and the United States Postal Service will, in perpetuity, continue to deliver mail to the businesses and residences along the highway addressed to ‘Jefferson Davis Highway’,” county officials said in a statement following the vote to ask the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) to change the name.

Arlington officials are seeking to have the roadway renamed “Richmond Highway,” but also voiced no objection if “Richmond Boulevard” were chosen as an alternative. (Naming the stretch “Richmond Highway” would, however, align the name with that of Alexandria and Fairfax County.)

If CTB members accede to the request at an upcoming meeting, the name change would take effect Oct. 1 and the Arlington government would pay the cost of swapping out street signs.

The proposal had the support of the Crystal City Business Improvement District and most speakers at the requisite public hearing, who said it was long overdue.

But not everyone was in self-congratulatory mode. Local activist Bernie Berne suggested recent efforts in stripping names and removing statues of Civil War figures was little more the racially-divisive virtue-signaling more akin to Soviet-style governance.

“You erase the name for political purposes, you lose the history,” he said in advocating against the change. “This name, if it remains, will remind people of that piece of history.”

 The board’s 5-0 vote was based on an advisory opinion from the office of the Virginia attorney general that said the CTB, as well as the General Assembly, had the statutory authority to rename the highway.

An earlier advisory opinion from the same office said that Arlington did not have the power under state law to change the name itself, but took no position on whether the power rested with the legislature, with the CTB, or with both. Del. Mark Levine (D-45th) requested the office of Attorney General Mark Herring look further into the matter, which resulted in the more recent advisory opinion.

Alexandria recently changed the name of the road from Jefferson Davis Highway to “Richmond Highway” within its borders. Under the eccentricities of state law, Alexandria – a city – had the power to take unilateral action, but Arlington did not.

The Virginia segment of U.S. Route 1 is part of a 2,369-mile roadway that runs from the Canadian border with Maine down to Key West, Fla. The General Assembly in the 1920s named U.S. Route 1 through Virginia in honor of Davis, a Mississippi native, at the behest of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

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