And for many behind the effort, it is an act of poetic justice, of sorts, that a name tied to racism will be replaced by that of a man who, by many accounts, was the first Black person elected to public office in the country.
“It symbolizes that, at least in some part, Arlington gets it,” said Wilma Jones, a member of the Lee Highway Alliance, an advisory group tasked by the board to explore new names for the roadway. “The things that should be honored and revered in our county are the things that help make us better, not the things that tear us apart. That’s what John M. Langston stood for.”
Born in Louisa County, Va., to a wealthy White planter and a formerly enslaved woman of Native American and African American descent, Langston worked on the Underground Railroad in Ohio before winning a post as the clerk of a local township in 1855.
After recruiting Black soldiers to the Union Army during the Civil War, he was appointed to serve as inspector-general of the Freedmen’s Bureau, helping to provide education, jobs and housing to formerly enslaved people — including those in one such settlement in Arlington.
His career also included stops at Howard University, where he helped found its law school and served as its dean, and as president of what is now Virginia State University. In 1888, he ran for a seat in the House of Representatives and didn’t take office until 18 months into his term, amid allegations of voter suppression and intimidation aimed at his supporters.
The Lee Highway Alliance had been discussing the matter for years, said Ginger Brown, the group’s executive director. The corridors, previously known as Falls Church Road, was only renamed after Robert E. Lee in the 1920s.
In December, the advisory panel had voted overwhelmingly to name the corridor after Mildred and Richard Loving, the Virginia couple who challenged the state’s interracial marriage ban. But County Board Chair Matt de Ferranti (D) said that proposal was ultimately set aside after the couple’s grandchildren expressed concerns. Their intensely private grandparents would not have wanted their name to address a major street, they told county staff.
So the panel turned to the second-most popular option: Langston.
“He was a pretty profound character,” Brown said. “This change is meaningful to a strong community, and we couldn’t be happier.”
Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed a bill in March giving the County Board the power to rename the corridor. De Ferranti said he expects the new name will be approved at a July 17 meeting, though it could take nearly a year for signage to be changed along the corridor, a process estimated to cost $300,000.
The renaming effort in Arlington reflects a broader push in Northern Virginia — and across much of the South — to shed names associated with the Confederacy, a cause that drew additional urgency following the killing of George Floyd last summer.
In February, Virginia state legislators voted to strip Jefferson Davis Highway of its Confederate president namesake, following similar efforts by Alexandria, Arlington and Prince William County in recent years. A statue of a Confederate soldiers in the heart of Alexandria was removed last summer, as were many of the Confederate statues along Richmond’s Monument Avenue.
The Lee Highway name change will also affect the portion of the street roughly between North Glebe and Military Roads currently known as Old Dominion Drive. The adjacent two-lane road often referred to as “Old Lee Highway” will also be renamed, Brown said, with the task force exploring possible options this summer.
The roadway will not be the first time Langston has been chosen as the namesake in Arlington County.
From 1925 until 1966, all Black children in then-segregated North Arlington attended John M. Langston Elementary School, which became a cherished part of the local Black community. Four students at that school would go on to attend the all-White Stratford Junior High, making it the first in Virginia to racially integrate.
For Jones — who, like her siblings and father, attended the school — that makes it personal.
“My entire life, all my school years, I went to Monticello and Mount Vernon and all those places,” she said. “It’s nice to me that the next generation of schoolchildren is going to get a more balanced understanding of our history.”