Jefferson Davis Highway in Arlington.  Image by Google Street View used with permission.

For many residents across the region, streets named for Confederate figures harken to a time of hatred and violence. As we saw this past weekend, that time is not distant at all. That’s why Alexandria and Arlington are thinking about renaming Jefferson Davis Highway, named for the president of the Confederate States of America.

Names are important. What we ask others to call us helps give us identity and allows us to express ourselves. They may be passed from family members or taken from books we read, and they may mean different things.

Many Alexandria streets have names that belong to Confederates, like Beauregard, Wheeler, Stuart, and Pickett. In the 1950s, Alexandria actually mandated that new streets had to be named after well-known Confederate military figures. The name that is perhaps most high profile in this region is Jefferson Davis Highway, a five-mile stretch of road between Rosslyn in Arlington and Potomac Yard in Alexandria.

What place does Jefferson Davis have in our modern society? None, at least not in Alexandria and Arlington. Last September, Alexandria voted to rename Jefferson Davis Highway, and now it wants input on a new name and has released a survey for residents to give feedback until September 15.

In May, Alexandria and Arlington established the Ad Hoc Advisory Group on Renaming Jefferson Davis Highway, a group that includes representatives from Alexandria and Arlington County. The group plans to hold two public meetings on August 17 and September 25 for residents to give feedback in person. It will make final recommendations for a new name in October.

Currently, about 468 miles of roadway in the United States are named after Jefferson Davis. Named in 1913, the roadway was originally supposed to span the country but bureaucracy and competing special interest groups curtailed this plan. Today, stretches are scattered among 11 states from Virginia to California. In 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. famously led the Voting Rights March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, on the state’s Jefferson Davis Highway, US-80.

Confederate monuments relate directly to Jim Crow and should be moved

Confederate monuments are abundant around the country. Virginia, as a whole, is full of Confederate symbols. This graphic from the Southern Poverty Law Center shows that many monuments and parks were added during the early 1900s and saw an uptick during the Civil Rights Era. The SPLC’s special report on the Confederacy shows that monuments and the Confederate flag were a way to affirm Jim Crow laws.

A common refrain from many who oppose removing statues and changing names is, “don't erase history.” This presumes that monuments are our only source of information, which isn’t the case when every child learns about the Civil War in classrooms, and there are many books, documentaries, museums, and battlegrounds that have been preserved for this purpose. No one is forgetting that slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the KKK, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Act, and the killings of Medgar Evers, Emmett Till, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X happened, just because some stone and metal statues have been removed or street signs replaced.

If we want our public spaces to be welcoming for everyone in the community, why keep symbols that stand for a painful past?

What’s next for Alexandria?

Judging from how many of Alexandria’s monuments and public streets are named after Confederate figures, there is a long road ahead to make more changes. The city didn’t repeal its rule about Confederate street names until 2014 and those street names still remain. It’s unclear whether they’ll be renamed.

In the same September meeting when the Alexandria City Council voted to rename Jefferson Davis Highway, it also voted to remove “Appomattox,” a statue of a Confederate soldier at the intersection of North Washington and Prince Streets, but hasn’t been able to do so yet, because removing a statue requires state approval. The state legislature did not introduce a bill for a vote, and has previously tried to strengthen protections for Confederate memorials and other symbols.

Arlington County will have a harder time changing the name for its section of Jefferson Davis Highway. As a city, Alexandria is allowed by state law to rename the street, but counties must have state approval.

What kind of message do lawmakers send when they uphold Confederate symbols in the name of recognizing history? There are better ways to learn history rather than have residents literally look up to Confederate figures and drive on roads that bear their name. These symbols hurt residents of our community and represent hate and racism. If a state or city wishes to keep these symbols they can place them in museums (along with explanations about why they were removed from the original locations), but they shouldn't be in public spaces.

Hopefully, renaming Jefferson Davis Highway is the first of many steps.

Joanne Tang is a Northern Virginia native and a graduate student in public administration and policy, focusing on resiliency and emergency response. She lives in Alexandria and enjoys learning about pretty much everything, including the history of pencils.