In a town that once took considerable pride in its Confederate past, the Alexandria City Council voted unanimously Saturday to change the name of Jefferson Davis Highway and seek permission from the Virginia General Assembly to move a renowned statue of a Confederate soldier in historic Old Town.
The council’s actions went beyond the recommendations of a task force that studied what to do about the city’s controversial Confederate symbols, but not as far as some residents wanted.
After a lengthy public hearing, the council agreed to try to relocate the “Appomattox” statue from the busy intersection of Prince and Washington streets, where thousands of motorists pass it each day. The pensive and unarmed south-facing Confederate soldier would be moved to a local history museum on the same corner.
Relocating the seven-foot, bronze statue will be a heavy political lift. It cannot be moved without the agreement of the legislature, and the General Assembly passed a bill earlier this year further strengthening prohibitions against cities and counties removing war memorials. T he legislation was vetoed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) in March.
The statue occupies the spot where a local regiment mustered to retreat from the city just before Union troops seized Alexandria in 1861. Erected in 1889 and owned by the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, it bears the names of Alexandria residents who died on behalf of the South. Once surrounded by an iron fence, grass and gaslights, its footprint has shrunk significantly, and vehicles have occasionally collided with it.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy did not appear at the public hearing, and it did not return requests for comment Saturday. But it earlier sent the council a book about the statue’s history.
“If this were on Monument Avenue in Richmond, where it is clearly [celebratory], I’d say knock it down,” said council member Timothy B. Lovain (D). But the statue is a reminder of the costs of war, he said. If it can remain at the same historic corner, with additional context explaining its significance, and be removed as a traffic hazard, the relocation might be politically possible.
The fate of the statue and the renaming of Jefferson Davis Highway, which honors the president of the Confederacy, have been discussed for years. The issue was resurrected last year after a white supremacist who posed with a Confederate flag was accused of killing nine people at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C. That state subsequently decided to remove the Confederate battle flag from its Capitol grounds, and other communities around the country have had similar discussions about Confederate symbols.
Opinions from the 18 speakers who lined up to testify Saturday in Alexandria were as heated as if the Civil War had just ended. They spoke in a chamber where a portrait of Robert E. Lee hangs opposite one of George Washington and where the painted backdrop behind the council is of Alexandria during its Union occupation.
Ellen Tabb decried the task force that recommended the changes to the council, noting that none of the members knew Southern history. She said native Virginians had been vilified at the commission’s meetings as “racists, bigots and murderers.”
Bernard Berne, who lives in Arlington, called Jefferson Davis a “tragic hero” who thought secession was legal and who should not be condemned for believing in slavery, which was part of the culture at the time.
The two African American council members, John Taylor Chapman (D) and Willie F. Bailey Sr. (D), repudiated that sentiment. Bailey later said that he was speaking not for himself but for his parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and other ancestors. “To try to say anyone even back then didn’t realize it’s wrong to own a person, that’s not right,” he said.
Others spoke with passion about the need for Alexandria to own up to its past.
“It’s never too late to right a wrong,” said Greg Thrasher, the director of a D.C. and Detroit-based think tank, Plane Ideas. “Yes, black lives matter right now in Alexandria. Black people have civil rights fatigue. How long does it take us to get to equality?”
The decision to rename Jefferson Davis Highway, also known as Route 1, which runs from the 14th Street Bridge over the Potomac River and south to Richmond, was less contentious.
Within the city’s historically African American neighborhood of Parker-Gray, the road splits; the northbound portion is called Patrick Street, and the southbound Henry Street. That prompted Mayor Allison Silberberg (D) to suggest the highway should be renamed Patrick Henry. But she and others agreed that the city should set up a community process to find a new name.
Arlington does not have the power to change the highway’s name without approval from the General Assembly. The Alexandria council asked the city manager to discuss name changes with Arlington in an attempt to keep the highway’s name consistent if Arlington is willing and able to change the road’s name in its jurisdiction.
The council also decided Saturday to consider on a case-by-case basis the renaming of Alexandria’s 30 or more streets named after Confederate war heroes. Citizens will have to petition the city to get the street names changed.
It is unclear which streets are named after Confederates. Some, such as Forrest Street, were thought to be named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general who later became a founder of the Ku Klux Klan. But the city’s director of historic sites said the street may have been named after an unrelated local Forrest family.
It was just a year ago that the city decided to end its practice of hanging three Confederate flags from traffic light poles at the “Appomattox” statue on Lee’s birthday and on Confederate Memorial Day.
The statue is the only one of a number of historic Civil War-era monuments in town. The others include the Union’s Fort Ward, which is now a park; the National Cemetery, where Union troops were buried starting in 1862; the Contraband and Freedman’s Cemetery along the Capital Beltway on South Washington Street; the Edmonson Sisters memorial at 1701 Duke St., and Freedom House, the site of a former slave dealer and slave pen complex at 1315 Duke St.