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A civil war among neighbors over Confederate-themed streets

A woman tends to a lawn at the corner of Confederate Lane and Plantation Parkway in the Mosby Woods neighborhood of Fairfax on Wednesday. The city is considering changing several names in the Civil War-themed development, but neighbors are divided. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

On the corner of Confederate Lane and Plantation Parkway in the Civil War-themed housing development of Mosby Woods, a “Black Lives Matter” lawn sign faces the two street markers.

A few blocks away in the same Northern Virginia development, other signs urge neighbors to “Save Ranger Rd!!” while cars bear parking permits with the neighborhood’s logo: a Confederate Raider on horseback charging into battle with saber raised.

Mosby Woods, a quiet cluster of 523 homes in Fairfax City built in the mid-20th century, is a community that has grown divided over its identity as the City Council considers renaming its Confederate-named streets.

For decades, street names that reflected Virginia’s Confederate past were a sometimes awkward fact of life for the neighborhood’s residents, in line with the surrounding landscape of Civil War battleground sites and historical markers, monuments and highways honoring Confederate generals like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

That changed with the murder of George Floyd by a former Minneapolis police officer in 2020, which unleashed a reckoning over systemic racism in the country that, in turn, ignited a backlash against perceived anti-White sentiments that has filled social media feeds and fueled a culture war over race and ethnicity.

Now, the increasingly diverse neighborhood, named after Confederate army battalion commander John S. Mosby, that is otherwise a typical suburban enclave — with summer block parties and holiday decoration contests — is another battleground, with the City Council set to decide in June whether nine streets in Mosby Woods should be called something else.

Residents say their community is straining under the weight of the topic, noting that some neighbors are no longer friendly to one another as they walk their dogs past Reb Street or shuttle their kids to school along Blue Coat Drive.

“This is such a lovely community and people are nervous that this conversation is going to ruin that,” said Amanda Stamp, who has lived with her husband in their Antietam Avenue house for six years.

One neighbor suggested she move, telling her “you don’t belong here” after learning that she supported changing the street names, Stamp said.

“I feel like that’s how our whole country is right now,” she said. "'You either agree with me or we don’t talk.'”

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Neighbors for change

Grace Gillespie realized the group she co-founded in 2020 — “Neighbors for Change” — had touched a nerve when she returned home after passing out fliers about renaming the streets and read an email accusing the volunteer organization of being funded by liberal philanthropist George Soros.

“I actually had to look up who George Soros was,” Gillespie recalled.

More emails followed, some from outside the community.

“If those who forget history are bound to repeat it, I would HATE to see what happens to those who try to rewrite it,” one read, calling the effort “virtue signaling” and signing off by suggesting that Gillespie and her neighbor Laura Bowles, the group’s co-founder, “kill yourselves.”

They informed the police, who took a report. No charges resulted from the case, a Fairfax police spokeswoman said.

Gillespie’s family has been in Mosby Woods since it was built, a common boast in a neighborhood of brick ramblers and two-story colonial-style houses 45 minutes from D.C. that features its own community swimming pool.

In the early 1960s, Gillespie’s grandparents bought into developer Stephen Yeonas’s vision of a self-contained community surrounded by parks, restaurants and shopping plazas in what was then a rapidly growing section of Northern Virginia.

The name “Mosby Woods” and its Civil War theme was a marketing scheme born during local centennial commemorations of the start of the Civil War, Yeonas told the local community association president for a 2012 book commemorating the development’s 50th anniversary.

Mosby was known for his “Midnight Raid” of 1863, when the Confederate colonel and his Rangers captured a Union Army brigadier general while he was sleeping in nearby Fairfax Courthouse — a southern victory commemorated by a local historic state marker that inspired the developer’s son to suggest the name, according to Bob Reinsel, the book’s author. Yeonas died in 2020.

Gillespie paid only passing attention to the street names while visiting her grandparents as a child, she said. Then, they passed away and Gillespie and her husband moved into the home on Plantation Parkway.

Their son, Micah, brought up the street names one day in 2017 after a fourth-grade lesson in Virginia history, Gillespie said.

“He started asking: 'Is it racist to have streets like Plantation and Confederate?’ ” she recalled.

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Others in the community had similar questions after the white supremacist rally over a Confederate statue in Charlottesville that year led to the death of a 32-year-old woman.

But it was the Floyd killing that moved Gillespie and Bowles into action.

They invited neighbors to join and petitioned the city, which was already discussing changing other Confederate markers around town — including the city seal that features an image of John Quincy Marr, the first Confederate soldier killed by a Union soldier in combat.

Neighbors for Change also researched the history of Confederate monuments and street names in the South, noting on its website how such memorials to “The Lost Cause” multiplied during the start of the civil rights movement, about when Mosby Woods was being built.

Amy Chase said that awareness made her think differently about her cheerful home on Ranger Road, named after Mosby’s troops.

“Within these walls were people sending their White kids to White-only schools,” she said. “It made history feel more recent.”

Laura Gerber, whose daughter Monet, 22, is half-Black, said the national tension over race during the past two years has made the street names unbearable.

“I don’t want my Black daughter and her friends driving down Plantation Parkway,” Gerber said. “It’s wrong. It’s hurtful.”

‘We are not responsible for this history’

Last fall, an advisory group convened by the Fairfax City Council recommended a host of changes to the Confederate markers across the city of 24,000 residents, nearly a third of whom are foreign-born.

For example, the city seal — a coat-of-arms noticeable on police officers’ uniforms during traffic stops — should not feature Marr’s square-jawed image next to that of Thomas Fairfax, the British lord for whom the city is named, the group said. The City Council is now considering a new seal that only features an image of the City Hall.

Monuments to fallen Confederate soldiers and the United Daughters of the Confederacy could remain untouched in the local cemetery. But the text on other markers — including the one about Mosby’s raid — should be changed so they’re not reflecting an anti-United States view, the group said.

Mosby Woods residents focused on the recommendations to change 14 street names in the city, most of them in their neighborhood.

Opponents of the changes argued that they would be an unnecessary and potentially costly inconvenience, forcing residents to alter the address on their driver’s licenses, credit cards, wills and other documents.

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They point out the few street names that honor the North — two bearing the name of Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman — or that bear neutral military connotations. They also note that, after the Civil War, Mosby befriended Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and expressed regret over his role in the Southern cause to maintain slavery, making his legacy more complicated.

The street names carry the memories of a community that has long been welcoming to newcomers, they said, though Mosby Woods is still mostly White. Latino immigrants, who have stayed out of the debate, live in an apartment complex on the edge of the development.

Yo Kimura, a Japanese American who has lived on Confederate Lane for 46 years, wants the street name kept as it is.

“We are not responsible for this history,” Kimura said about Virginia’s role in the Confederacy. “We are not carrying the spirit of this history either.”

Neighbor against neighbor

On Ranger Road one recent afternoon, an elderly White woman opened her front door with a cheerful smile while shooing away her yapping dog.

Her face hardened when she was asked about the sign on her front lawn.

Like about a dozen others on her block, the sign urged neighbors to “Tell City Hall!” that they wanted to keep their street name intact. “Your Street. Your Voice. Don’t Be Silent!!”

“No, thank you,” the woman said to an invitation to share her views, shutting her door. “Bye bye.”

Francis Dietz, a neighbor on Ranger Road who printed those signs, said some residents who’ve taken a stance against the name changes live in fear of being called racist as a result.

He blamed the city and Neighbors for Change for wanting to “re-litigate or relight the Civil War that has been over for 160 years.”

In the advisory group report, “one of the things they said was: `You’re going to need a period of healing after this,' ” Dietz said. “I’m like: Well, you don’t need a period of healing if you don’t cause division to begin with.”

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The emotions behind the debate distract from some of the arguments, others said.

For example, Dietz’s neighbors on Ranger Road and residents who live on Traveler Road (a misspelled homage to Lee’s horse) or Shiloh Street (named after a demoralizing 1862 Confederate defeat in Tennessee) say their street names mean little to anyone who doesn’t already know about their links to the Civil War.

“Nobody on our street thinks `Traveler’ is offensive, and it shouldn’t be,” said Chris Andrews, a resident of nearly 30 years. “It’s just a wayfarer.”

Some on both sides have suggested that Mosby Woods rebrand itself by changing its name altogether and shedding the Confederate raider on its logo, giving the less-obviously Confederate street names a chance to take on new connotations.

That decision would come from the Mosby Woods Community Association. In April, the group polled residents, finding that about 48 percent of those surveyed disliked the idea of a new neighborhood name while nearly 40 percent favored it. Another 12 percent were undecided.

Festering resentments

Reinsel, the community association president, has navigated the debate with one overriding concern: preserving the neighborhood’s sense of unity.

“We have always been working to keep the community together, working as a community, even though we all have our own thoughts about this,” said Reinsel, who grew up in Mosby Woods during the 1970s and ’80s.

Mosby Woods has faced divisions before, he said.

Residents in a portion of the development that was initially over the Fairfax County boundary line resisted efforts to move the boundary so they’d be part of the city — a fight over the quality of government services and schools that ended in 1980 and bred resentments between neighbors.

“But the community worked through it,” Reinsel said, adding he thought the same will happen this time.

Some residents agree. Others say the hard feelings have been allowed to fester after nearly two years of debate, including back-and-forth arguments posted to the community association’s Facebook page and a city website dedicated to the issue.

“I wish the city had gotten involved more quickly so it would be taken out of the hands of neighbors,” said Chase, on Ranger Road.

Fairfax City Mayor David Meyer agreed that the matter should have been resolved sooner, following several postponed votes on the issue by the city council, which appears to be favoring some combination of name changes.

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Given the controversial history of Confederate symbols in Virginia, the city has tried to hear from as many residents as possible while also exploring its role in that history, Meyer said.

“I don’t believe, in the 40 years that I’ve been involved in community leadership in the city of Fairfax, that I’ve witnessed anything that comes close to the kind of outreach and citizen engagement that we’ve had on this issue,” he said.

Mako Honda said she is eager to get past the feeling that she and her husband Ryan Finley live on “the worst street corner in Fairfax City and, even, across the U.S.”

The couple bought their brick rambler in 2019, so focused on the relatively lower price in expensive Northern Virginia that they didn’t think much about the streets around their new home: the intersection of Plantation Parkway and Confederate Lane.

After Floyd’s murder, a neighbor printed “Black Lives Matter” lawn signs and passed them out. Finley took one and drove it into the grass in front of their house, facing the street signs.

There it will sit until the street names change, he said, marveling at how what started as a marketing ploy to lure buyers to Mosby Woods has now pitted neighbor against neighbor.

“It’s just annoying that this was snuck in by some dude looking to sell houses,” Finley said.

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