Jefferson Davis Highway Slowly Going Away
Northern Virginia is slowly undoing an anachronism.
Arlington County, Virginia is following the lead of its neighbor, the City of Alexandria, in renaming its section of US Highway 1 from the controversial “Jefferson Davis Highway” to the innocuous “Richmond Highway.”
Jefferson Davis Highway will be no more in Arlington County. Virginia.
The Commonwealth Transportation Board voted Wednesday to change the official name of U.S. Route 1 through Arlington County to Richmond Highway this fall.
“Jefferson Davis had no known connection to this region …. and the very designation…was a direct and antagonistic response to the proposed Lincoln Highway,” Arlington County Board Chair Christian Dorsey said.
It symbolized white supremacy in a Jim Crow south, Dorsey said.
Dorsey emphasized that Arlington has pressed for the change for years — even before the 2017 attack in Charlottesville – and that the road will now have the same name from Fort Belvoir to the Potomac.
The Arlington County Board requested this name change vote last month after a new opinion from Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring concluded the Commonwealth Transportation Board had the power to rename the road after a law change in 2012, even though the name was originally designated by the Virginia General Assembly nearly a century ago.
Del. Mark Levine says he has been waiting for this change to the “offensive” name for a long time, that he says was chosen only to honor the Confederate cause.
“We all call it Route 1 because we don’t want to call it by its real name,” Levine said.
“This road is not historical … it comes from 1922,” he said. “It was done specifically to terrorize the black population.”
The change is long overdue. Regardless of current intent, the old name celebrates slavery and secession and thereby antagonizes and insults a large swath of the citizenry with no offsetting benefit.
Still, some of this is overwrought.
First, the notion that something that’s nearly a century old isn’t “historical” is curious. And it having been done in 1922 rather than 1962 seems to undercut somewhat the notion that it was “done specifically to terrorize the black population.” In fact, as I detail in my posting from last June, when the City of Alexandria made the change, it was part of a nation-wide project pushed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. It was more a part of the Lost Cause myth than terrorizing blacks.
Second, the stretch of US-1 that runs past my house in Alexandria/Fairfax County* has been named “Richmond Highway” at least for the thirteen years I’ve lived here. Everyone calls it “Route 1.” It’s not because we’re ashamed of Richmond. (Presumably, it’s because the same road has multiple names in places where local residents drive routinely, so using the generic name is easier.)
Interestingly, the road becomes “Jefferson Davis Highway” again somewhat south of me and continues under that name for as far as I’ve driven it, including right outside Marine Corps Base Quantico. (It parallels I-95 much of the way and I tend to drive the Interstate instead.) I don’t follow the politics in those localities enough to know whether they’re considering a change. (For a more detailed look at the route and its history, see my previous posting.)
I gather that the Virginia legislature is not. That would obviously be preferable to piecemeal changes, although would presumably transfer the costs of the renaming to Richmond rather than various localities. It’s not insignificant:
Arlington County expects to pay about $17,000 for new street signs. The official name change is effective in October.
Businesses and residents on U.S. Route 1 will be able to continue using Jefferson Davis Highway as their mailing address if they choose for now, but the street signs will be changed to reflect the Richmond Highway name also used in Fairfax County.
There is considerable offset for the investment, however:
The Arlington Chamber of Commerce supports the change and believes it could help businesses who have at times reported people going elsewhere due to the name. The Crystal City BID also supports the change as “good for business” and people who live in the area.
According to the BID, even the hotel where the meeting was being held had lost a conference booking because the organization did not want to hold a meeting at a location with an address named for the Confederate leader.
Anachronism can be costly, it seems.
On a related note, when looking for a photo to illustrate this posting, I stumbled on this 2005 shot from our old friend Chris Lawrence of a marker “At the corner of Amite and State streets in downtown Jackson.”
*I’ve lived in many states over my half-century plus but the Commonwealth is the only one I’ve lived in that has counties and independent cities. Everywhere else I’ve lived, the state was organized into counties or parishes and cities and townships resided inside (or occasionally overlapped with) those. So, we have the oddness of “Alexandria” being both an independent city and the name of a contiguous area of Fairfax County with independent governments, school districts, police departments, and the like.