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Fairfax leans toward route numbers in renaming roads honoring Confederacy

Lee Highway and Lee Jackson Memorial Highway in Fairfax County may soon shed their Confederate names and simply go by the names of their U.S. route numbers. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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Lee Highway and Lee Jackson Memorial Highway in Fairfax County may soon shed their Confederate names and simply go by their U.S. highway route numbers.

The County Board of Supervisors is leaning toward that option in hopes of avoiding any backlash and confusion over what has at times been a volatile issue, as localities in Northern Virginia rename roads that have long honored Confederate leaders like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

Within the past year, Arlington County changed its portion of Lee Highway to Langston Boulevard. Prince William County renamed Jefferson Davis Highway to Richmond Highway.

Loudoun County’s board agreed that John Mosby Highway should be called Little River Turnpike and that Harry Byrd Highway will be renamed Leesburg Pike — both the original names before they were changed during the 20th century.

A recent poll of businesses and residents on Lee Highway and Lee Jackson Memorial Highway conducted by Fairfax’s Department of Transportation showed that most respondents prefer that the roads be called by their route numbers. Lee Highway is part of U.S. Route 29 and Lee Jackson Memorial Highway is part of U.S. Route 50.

“Frankly, people already refer to these roads by their route numbers,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeffrey C. McKay (D-At Large) said during a transportation committee meeting Tuesday. “So, it would be a less dramatic change in terms of lifestyle, marketing and the daily lives of people who live and work in these two corridors.” A board vote on the name changes hasn’t yet been scheduled, said Taylor Holland, McKay’s chief of staff.

After the 2020 killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis prompted a racial reckoning nationwide, the examination into Virginia’s Confederate past has become a largely bureaucratic process — with some residents continuing to oppose changing road names.

They argue that the state’s history shouldn’t be erased and that adopting new names would be an unnecessary hassle, forcing them to change the addresses on their driver’s license and other documents.

Others say the changes will only breed more confusion in a region where the same highway can have three different names as commuters pass from one jurisdiction to another.

On Tuesday, Fairfax County Supervisor Dalia A. Palchik (D-Providence) noted that potential while suggesting that the county coordinate with its neighboring jurisdictions on what to call area thoroughfares.

“Anything that reduces, hopefully, confusion and increases alignment in how the roads are named across jurisdictions would be my vote,” Palchik said. “Not any new names.”

Supervisor James R. Walkinshaw (D-Braddock) suggested following Loudoun County’s example by using the original name for U.S. Route 50 — Little River Turnpike — in renaming Lee Jackson Memorial Highway.

“For those who are passionate about their Civil War history, the name of the road when the Battle of Chantilly took place was ‘Little River Turnpike,’ ” Walkinshaw said.

Fairfax’s board is also considering establishing a fund to compensate any businesses and residents that incur costs from changing their address on documents or marketing material — a step also taken by Prince William and Loudoun counties.

The passions around the subject were on display Tuesday night in Fairfax City, where the City Council is considering renaming 14 streets — most of them in the Mosby Woods neighborhood that was built during the early 1960s around a Civil War theme.

During a public hearing on the issue, nearly 50 residents testified for or against the proposed changes, which also include the portion of Lee Highway that runs through the city. The City Council is scheduled to vote on that issue on June 28.

“They do nothing whatsoever to help anyone in our society who needs us,” said Francis Dietz, a resident of Ranger Road in Mosby Woods, who spoke against the proposed changes. “What they do is needlessly cost citizens time and money and, of course, pit neighbor against neighbor.”

Marissa Perrone, who also lives on Ranger Road — which was named after Confederate army commander John Mosby’s 43rd battalion — cited real estate market data showing that homes on streets with references to the Confederacy names tend to sell for less than comparable houses on other streets.

“Why aren’t the effects on housing prices entering this discussion?” she said.

Rahmein Mostafavi, a resident of the Oakton area of Fairfax County, expressed outrage that most of the people speaking on the issue were not Black.

“We’re a bunch of, basically, not Black people talking about what’s affecting Black people,” he said. “We should be embarrassed.”