More than 3,000 people have signed online petitions calling for a change in the name of Jefferson Davis Highway in Virginia, buoyed by growing national scrutiny of the Confederate flag and other symbols of the vanquished South.
The name applies to the portion of U.S. 1 that runs from the Potomac River through Virginia to the North Carolina border, and to other highways elsewhere in the South. Those roads were named for the president of the Confederacy at the behest of advocates who wanted a Southern equivalent to the coast-to-coast Lincoln Highway, according to a history posted on the Web site of the Federal Highway Administration.
“Davis was an unrepentant white supremacist who fervently believed the Southern cause, slavery and segregation were right and just,” wrote Vienna lawyer Daniel Zim on a Change.org petition that has collected more than 2,600 signatures. “It is therefore outrageous that a major Virginia thoroughfare . . . continues to bear the name of a morally depraved, non-Virginian who rejected the very idea of a United States.”
While opposition to the highway’s name has festered for years in liberal Northern Virginia, petition organizers are hoping to build on national momentum created in the aftermath of last month’s mass killing of churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., allegedly by a white supremacist.
“One hundred and fifty years of mollifying supporters of the Confederacy is enough,” said Diane Duston, a real estate agent in Arlington whose week-old petition has garnered more than 500 signatures. “We’re through with what the Confederacy stood for.”
The issue is being discussed among Northern Virginia lawmakers, who acknowledge the challenge of trying to change longstanding markers and memorials even in light of recent decisions to halt Confederate-flag license plates and stop flying the battle flag on the grounds of the South Carolina state capitol.
“It’s a hard lift, partly because of the issues of changing other historic references to the Confederacy,” said Virginia state Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria), who is considering whether to introduce a bill to rename the highway during the 2016 legislative session. “But I would like to see it changed.”
The Arlington County Board plans to ask its legislative delegation to sponsor a name-changing bill, said board chairman Mary Hynes (D). She said the request was prompted by a flurry of letters from residents, and added that she would not ask for a name change for Lee Highway, because — unlike Davis — Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee actually lived in Arlington.
State Sen. Barbara A. Favola (D-Arlington) and Del. Patrick A. Hope (D-Arlington) said they would support a discussion of the issue, but both also said such a bill would be difficult to pass. They, like Ebbin, said renaming the highway would call into question the Confederacy-related names of many other roads, schools and buildings in the state.
A spokesman for House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) declined to comment on the issue, and a spokesman for Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) did not respond to an interview request.
Naming U.S. 1 for Jefferson Davis was the idea of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the same organization that owns the statue of a Confederate soldier in Alexandria and the flags that are raised near the statue on Confederate holidays each year. Members of the Alexandria City Council said this week that they want to end that practice.
Patricia Trammell, president of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, did not return calls for comment on Friday. According to the highway administration , the group lobbied strenuously to rename highways in Davis’s honor. Virginia’s legislature voted to do so in 1922.
The groundswell against Confederate symbols is stirring some criticism, including from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who said Thursday that erasing reminders of the Civil War is “political correctness run amok.”
“Where do we draw the line?” Hogan asked, referring to online petitions seeking to remove a Confederate statue from near the Annapolis statehouse and rename Byrd stadium at the University of Maryland.
The governor — who has called for an end to state-issued license plates showing the Confederate flag — sarcastically noted the presence of a statue of George Washington in the statehouse. “George Washington was a slave owner,” Hogan said. “Should we remove him?”
In Virginia, the Sons of Confederate Veterans are fighting McAuliffe’s order to remove the Confederate flag from specialty license plates.
“It’s cultural genocide,” said Frank Earnest, past commander of the group’s Virginia division. “Everything about a four-year period where Virginia and other Southern states fought for their rights, we’re gonna eradicate any of that. That is something that’s done in dictatorial countries, not in the United States of America.”
Staff writer Laura Vozzella also contributed to this report.