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.”

“Jefferson Davis Highway marker” by Chris Lawrence is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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*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.

FILED UNDER: Race and Politics, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. SKI says:

    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.”

    I don’t understand this sentiment. Are you suggesting that in 1922 there wasn’t a motivation to subjugate/terrorize the black population?

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  2. It’s worth noting that the 1920s coincided with the rebirth of the KKK so the fact that the highway was named in the 20s is not surprising.

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  3. James Joyner says:

    @SKI: @Doug Mataconis: I detailed the history of the name last June. It was really Lost Cause boosterism that spawned the name. It’s very different from the post-Brown and post-Civil Rights Act placement of Confederate statues, hoisting of the battle flag, etc.

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  4. @James Joyner:

    I’ll agree that the revival of Confederate symbols in the 50s and 60s was motivated by the post-Brown/CRA environment, but the whole “Lost Cause” idea in the 20s was also rooted in part in things such as the movie “Birth Of A Nation,” which was a blatant pro-KKK movie.

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  5. gVOR08 says:

    You can make an argument for memorializing, say, Lee, as a good general, aside from the cause he fought for. But Davis wasn’t even a good president.

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  6. @gVOR08:

    Once you have learned the truth about Robert E. Lee, it is clear there is no reason to honor him.

    As I have said before, this isn’t an argument about wiping the Confederacy from history. Far from it, we need to remember it and what it stood for as much as the world needs to remember the legacy of Nazi Germany and the truth about the Holocaust, the legacy of the Soviet Union in general and Stalinism in particular, and the legacy of Communist China and Maoism in particular. That’s what museums are for.

    What we should not be doing is honoring the CSA or the people who fought for it. They do not deserve it.

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  7. MarkedMan says:

    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.

    If you do some research I think you’ll find that the 1920’s was every bit as repressive and dangerous as the 1950’s/60’s for the African American population. It was in that era that Woodrow Wilson purged the federal government of blacks. And of course the dawn of popular photography gave us the era of the lynching postcard, where civilized white southerners would bring their entire families to church, then go to the town park where a hapless victim was strung up in a tree and then civilized, god fearing and brave souls would take turns torturing him (usually, but not always, a him). Then perhaps he would finally be finished off with a bonfire kindled underneath so he could be slowly burned to death. Afterwards, members of the superior, civilized white race would take turns having their pictures taken with the body and the enterprising photographer would turn the prints into post cards so they could be shared far and wide. And yes, this was real thing. Just google “lynching postcards”. When I lived in Georgia in the ’90s they were traded as collectors items in some of the so-called Civil War memorabilia stores.

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  8. Mikey says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Indeed. It is of course worth noting there are no statues to Hitler in Germany, and nowhere in the country does one find Adolf-Hitler-Straße. In Russia, Stalingrad is Volgograd and Leningrad went back to St. Petersburg. And yet the horrors of Nazism and Soviet oppression have not vanished from our collective memory.

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  9. Teve says:

    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.”

    The rebirth of the Klan got started in 1915 after Birth of a Nation and peaked in the 1920s.

    OtB could use some black contributors.

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  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner:

    It was really Lost Cause boosterism that spawned the name.

    Lost cause boosterism in service of white supremacy via Jim Crow. James, you can not separate one from the other.

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  11. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @gVOR08: Lee may have been a tactical genius but that doesn’t make him a good general. I would argue the exact opposite. He is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans fighting in a war he knew he could not win. His only hope was for the North to lose it.

    Not a good strategy.

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  12. Kathy says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    As I have said before, this isn’t an argument about wiping the Confederacy from history. Far from it, we need to remember it and what it stood for as much as the world needs to remember the legacy of Nazi Germany and the truth about the Holocaust, the legacy of the Soviet Union in general and Stalinism in particular, and the legacy of Communist China and Maoism in particular. That’s what museums are for.

    Right. but it’s worth reiterating that one can remember evil people without commemorating or honoring them. The Holocaust Museum in Israel has lots of photos and other exhibits with nazi symbols. This is natural, seeing as it documents what the nazis did. But it commemorates the victims, not the perpetrators.

    another thing, a person can be horrible, yet talented in one field. Lee was a good general, judged on strictly military criteria. This doesn’t mean he should be honored, of course, but one might learn from his tactics and strategies.

    IMO, it’s easier to judge generalship of people long dead, whose struggles are not explicitly immoral, or at least are immaterial to us. For example, Hannibal Barca, Julius Caesar, Scipio Africanus, or for that matter Alexander, or even Napoleon.

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  13. gVOR08 says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: One of the British war historians, maybe Keegan, observed that every century gets one great general. Unfortunately for the US, in the 20th century it was Giap. But he said the 19th had two, Lee and Grant, and that of the two, he’d give the nod to Grant, who had a clear plan to end the war, while Lee had none.

    In fairness to Lee, in the poorly organized Confederate government, Lee was responsible only for Northern Virginia. Overall strategy fell to Davis, which is part of the basis for my comment @gVOR08:.

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  14. SKI says:

    @James Joyner: As others have noted, I don’t think that you can separate “Lost Cause boosterism” – particularly in the early 20th century – from white supremacy and anti-black violence.

    That attempt, in itself, is deeply rooted in “Lost Cause” mythology.

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  15. michael reynolds says:

    Lee thought he was fighting a war of maneuver and that he could frighten the North into submission. Grant understood they were fighting a war of attrition. Long before Appomattox it was quite clear that the South could not possibly win. But like Hitler in his bunker Lee and Davis jointly pursued a path guaranteed to result in the deaths of tens of thousands of soldiers and destroy the infrastructure of the South.

    What is honorable or chivalrous or for that matter effective about fighting to the last starved man when defeat is guaranteed? Tens of thousands of men, hundreds of thousands of orphans and widows and bereaved parents, and a fortune in infrastructure, all for the ‘honor’ of a general fighting in an evil cause he knew he’d lose. But oh, he survived, didn’t he? Yep.

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  16. Stormy Dragon says:

    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.”

    Go look up Virginia’s “Racial Integrity Act of 1924” and then come back here and tell us if you still think stuff like this wasn’t done specifically to terrorize the black population.

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  17. DrDaveT says:

    First, the notion that something that’s nearly a century old isn’t “historical” is curious.

    As you well know (or should), ‘historical’ is being used in that context to mean “dating from the time of the person or events being memorialized”.

    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, […] 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.

    Others have already pointed out that it is absurd to try to separate the Lost Cause mythology from the rest of the package. To choose a non-Godwin analogy (though the Godwin analogies are apposite) it’s like trying to separate the New Soviet Man mythology from the gulags and the purges.

    I’m curious — if it had been the Sons of the Confederacy (as opposed to the Daughters) diligently naming things after traitors, would you feel the same way about them not having anything to do with lynchings and Jim Crow?

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  18. Mikey says:

    @michael reynolds:

    But oh, he survived, didn’t he?

    He should have been hanged for treason.

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  19. Stormy Dragon says:

    BTW, I’ve discovered that neo-confederates get satisfyingly pissed if you insist on calling Robert E. Lee “Colonel Lee” (Colonel was the highest rank he ever obtained in the real US army).

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  20. gVOR08 says:

    @michael reynolds: There’s a story about Davis that he was faced by women protesting the lack of food in Richmond. He took out all the money he had in his pockets out and threw it to the crowd. He said something to the effect of, “What more would you have me do?” and left. He’d been as generous as he could be. What else would you have him do? End the war?

    It’s the conservative personality. George Lakoff teaches us that for them freedom means being allowed to do their duty as they see it, and their duty includes making you do your duty, as they see it. And everything is a question of personal morality.

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  21. @Kathy:

    one can remember evil people without commemorating or honoring them.

    That was kind of my point.

    another thing, a person can be horrible, yet talented in one field. Lee was a good general, judged on strictly military criteria.

    Some have argued that Lee was a “good General,” but that he was not good at adapting to new styles of warfare. Like many generals of his time, he followed basically the same tactics that were used in battle in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. As long as he was up against medicore leaders who played the same game he did — like McClellan and the line of Union generals that followed him — he did just fine. When he came head to head against a General willing to try new methods of warfare, like Grant and Sherman, his reliance on old-fashioned military strategy became a deficit. Also, one could argue that his only chance at victory was at Antietam. Had he won that early victory in Union territory, then it’s possible that it might have forced a peace that allowed the CSA to continue existing. Once that didn’t happen, the rest was inevitable. The twin losses at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863 just made what followed inevitable.

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  22. @Stormy Dragon:

    I’ll have to remember that.

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  23. @James Joyner: I suggest you read up on the history of the USA — and Virginia — in the 1910’s and 1920’s. It was a lot more scary time for African-Americans than the Massive Resistance post-Brown. Indeed, in the 1960’s after the Civil Rights Act, Blacks could legally go to hotels, restaurants, and movie theaters, and even had the right to vote in the South! Not so in the 1910’s and 1920’s when lynching and the KKK and legal segregation were at their peak.

    Of course, poll taxes and literacy tests kept Blacks from voting while poor whites could skate by on grandfather clauses. But it is the terrorism that was the most frightening: the lynching of thousands of innocent blacks (and some whites) who tried to defy white supremacy and argue against legal segregation — while crowds celebrated and took pictures in front of the murdered innocents. Several lynchings a month occurred well into the 1930’s. And many of them were tourist attractions.

    In fact, the entire purpose of the Lost Cause Mythology was to terrorize Blacks and justify lynching.That’s why you’ll see the vast majority of Confederate monuments in the USA were put up during the Jim Crow Era from 1900 to 1930, and maximized in the 1910’s and 1920’s. See https://www.npr.org/2017/08/20/544266880/confederate-statues-were-built-to-further-a-white-supremacist-future. I’m actually bothered less by the relatively few memorials put up right after the Civil War (which are historical) than the monuments put up generations later which were paeans to white supremacy more than remembrances of anyone in the Confederacy. It’s one thing to remember the dead and quite another thing to celebrate oppression.

    You’re right there was a minor renaissance of racist terror and Confederate monuments in the 1950’s and 1960’s, but it pales in comparison to the 1920’s when tens of thousands of KKKers proudly marched in their hoods on Washington, DC to the cheers of the vast majority of white citizens and politicians. The largest march in KKK history was in 1925. Not in the 1950’s or 1960’s when Klan activity, though high, had much declined from the 1920’s. The 1920’s Klan was actually much stronger than even the original KKK formed in Pulaski, Tennessee after the Civil War.

    It’s only because white supremacy was so in vogue in the 1920’s that these monuments were put up and highways like Jefferson Davis Highway were named. As you’ll see from the chart in the link I posted above, there are very few monuments and commemorations prior to 1900, which was when those who fought in the Civil War lived out most of the prime of their lives.

    Please study this period of American history. You may be surprised to know how misinformed you are. The Lost Cause Historiography is perhaps the nation’s greatest foray into Fake News, but it has little or nothing to do with the Civil War and everything to do with “keeping blacks in their place.” I’m pleased to see how many commenters here know the truth.

    To reaffirm, I stand by my statement that the designation of Jefferson Davis Highway to commemorate the President of the Confederacy was designed primarily to terrorize blacks. And it still does. It’s not just true a century ago. Even today, the vast majority of my constituents — black and white — continue to be offended by Virginia explicitly saying through the commemoration of Jefferson Davis on its primary highway that slavery is not only something to be honored and praised, but a cause worth dying and killing for. Hundreds of thousands of Americans died because of traitors like Jefferson Davis, who advocated killing his countrymen rather than give up enslaving his fellow Americans.

    And while it’s true that in 1922, the majority of white Virginians believed slavery and white supremacy were causes worth dying and killing for, I don’t think that’s true almost a century later among the vast majority of Virginians, white or black. I know it’s not true in Arlington. And actually, I don’t think it’s true in most of the rest of Virginia as well.

    I’m proud to have proven there is a legal way to do this without going through the Republican-dominated General Assembly where Confederacy nostalgia ensured that legislative efforts were stymied.

    It’s time for other localities to follow Arlington’s lead.

    It is my firm believe that slavery and violence and white supremacy should no longer be honored and commemorated in Arlington, nor anywhere else in Virginia, nor anywhere else in the USA, or the world.

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  24. Tyrell says:

    I am writing this in concern over the increasing attacks on the South and southern history by misguided individuals and groups. Today it is Davis and Lee who are being attacked and erased. Soon it will be Grant, Sherman (western policies), Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and even Lincoln. National historical parks too will come under attack.
    Davis was named after Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson Davis was not in favor of secession. He was a hero of the war with Mexico at the battles of Monterrey and Buena Vista, serving under General Taylor, who would later become president.
    As Secretary of War, Davis helped the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, which aided the western expansion. He enlarged the US Army and worked for the Gadsden purchase. He reformed the military. Davis was well respected by northern politicians and financial leaders. He was a frequent guest at their dinner parties. After his arrest at the end of the war, Davis’ bail was posted by abolitionists. After the war, many southern officers and soldiers returned to the US army and served with distinction.
    Most southerners did not own slaves. Most of the slave owners were farmers, who owned 2-4 slaves. The image of the south being dominated by plantations is false. I have been to some Civil War reenactment camps. Both sides are represented. Everyone gets along. It is very educational and dispels myths and stereotypes. I understand and get that people oppose slavery and the southern secession. But misguided groups want the entire history of the south, indeed the Civil War to be erased and totally forgotten.
    Jefferson Davis was restored to full US citizenship by President Carter (a southern leader) in 1978.
    I am a southerner who is proud of the southern life and much of its history -not all of it.
    “I take my stand to live and die in Dixie”

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