Almost 100 years after Confederate sympathizers named a major Virginia road after the president of their lost cause, Arlington County won approval from a state transportation board to rename Jefferson Davis Highway.
The Commonwealth Transportation Board voted unanimously Wednesday morning to allow Arlington to change the name of the road — commonly known as Route 1 — to Richmond Highway by Oct. 1, after lobbying by the county, legislators, business and residential groups, as well as Gov. Ralph Northam (D).
“What we just heard, through the unanimous vote and the words of the governor, is it’s past time,” said Christian Dorsey (D), chair of the County Board. He said later that the street signs would be changed no later than Oct. 1.
The county has tried for years to change the road’s name but has been stymied by the General Assembly, which held the power to block requests made by counties, officials believed. But Del. Mark H. Levine (D-Alexandria) found an exception that allowed the statewide transportation board to act, if requested by the county. Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) agreed in an advisory opinion in March, and one month later, Arlington made the formal request.
Residents in Northern Virginia began a serious push to change the highway’s name after the Charleston church shooting in 2015 led to the removal of the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s statehouse grounds. Two years later, the violent and deadly white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville over an effort to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee caused Virginia, home to more Confederate monuments and memorials than any other state, to reassess its schools, streets and other public landmarks named to honor the Confederacy.
Arlington business owners told the board Wednesday that having addresses on Jefferson Davis Highway cost them customers, including the loss of a convention at the hotel where the board meeting was held. Other potential tenants have refused to rent space in buildings with a Jefferson Davis address, said Scott Pedowitz, an Arlington Chamber of Commerce executive. Google Maps and other online navigational sites have already started calling the road Richmond Highway.
JBG Smith, the major landlord and developer of Crystal City, and the Crystal City Civic Association also strongly supported the name change. The road runs right through the neighborhood where Amazon plans to settle over the next 10 years, although there was no public statement about the name change from the Seattle-based company. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Stacey D. Stewart, president of the March of Dimes, which relocated to Arlington late last year, said the highway’s name is “divisive and a daily reminder of our nation’s dark and shameful history . . . a painful and oppressive past.” She, like others, said the Confederate president’s name does not reflect the region’s values.
The road was named in 1922, part of an effort by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, as a “direct and antagonistic response” to the establishment of Lincoln Highway across the northern states, Dorsey said. Davis, a Mississippi congressman before the Southern states seceded in 1861, had no known connection to Northern Virginia. He was accused of treason after the Civil War and imprisoned, but then released without trial.
The name was established to “terrorize” African Americans, Levine said. “Let’s not forget that Virginia was the birthplace of [American] slavery,” he added.
The city of Alexandria agreed to rename its portion of the road in 2018, choosing the moniker Richmond Highway because that’s what it is called to the south, in Fairfax County. The Arlington portion of U.S. Route 1 and Virginia Route 110 will bear the new name, the transportation board decided.
The motion sailed through with only a hint of opposition, when board member Bert Dodson of Lynchburg asked whether the board would be “overrun” with name-change requests. Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine, who chairs the board, said that would be dealt with later.