Arlington County, which has been stymied in its long-running effort to change the name of Jefferson Davis Highway, can ask the Commonwealth Transportation Board to do so and does not need the approval of the state legislature, Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) said in an advisory opinion Friday.
The strongly Democratic Northern Virginia communities have long deplored the name, which honors the president of the Confederacy.
Last year, Alexandria renamed the portion of the road that runs through its borders, changing it to Richmond Highway.
But state law seemed to say that while cities can decide what to call roads, counties cannot alter names set by the legislature. And the Republican-controlled General Assembly has resisted previous efforts by Arlington that would allow a name change.
Herring, in a response to a request from state Del. Mark Levine (D-Alexandria), said a statute change in 2012 allows counties to request a name change from the 17-member transportation board, which is appointed by Gov. Ralph Northam (D).
Arlington County Board Chair Christian Dorsey (D) said he thinks the board will make that request quickly.
“It’s long been our stated intent, and we value highly our ability to name the streets and roads of Arlington County,” Dorsey said, citing the importance of the road’s name being consistent in Arlington and Alexandria. “I’ll have to discuss this with the other board members, but this gives us the ability to move forward.”
Levine, who represents the area, said in a news release that the county board, despite its desire to alter the name, previously expressed concerns about the legal ramifications of not going through the General Assembly. This opinion lays those concerns to rest, he said.
“It’s 2019,” Levine said. “The vast majority of Northern Virginians no longer wants to honor the Confederacy or Jefferson Davis.”
Bertram Hayes-Davis, a great-great-grandson of Jefferson Davis, said he thinks the highway should keep his ancestor’s name as long as it honors his entire life and not just his four years as president of the Confederate states.
“History has left him out of a lot of things he did before 1861,” said Hayes-Davis, who runs a foundation for Davis in Vicksburg, Miss. “Most people don’t know he was a West Point graduate, a congressman, served in the Army for eight years, a senator from Mississippi and was secretary of war under Franklin Pierce.”
The Republican leadership in Richmond had no comment Friday on Herring’s opinion.
State Sen. Barbara A. Favola (D-Arlington), who unsuccessfully proposed a bill two years ago to allow Arlington to make the name change and who continues to support it, expressed skepticism Friday that the opinion will make a significant difference.
“It is highly unlikely the Commonwealth Transportation Board would overrule the General Assembly,” she said.
Mary Hynes, a former Arlington County Board member who now serves on the transportation board, said she could not predict the outcome.
“It has the potential to end the confusion as to what this road is called. From the Potomac all the way through Fairfax County, it’s called Richmond Highway,” she said.
The name change has long been on the Arlington County Board’s list of legislative priorities. The commonwealth made a point of its “inclusivity” when it pitched itself to Amazon nearly two years ago, and the name of the highway, which passes some of the buildings that the online giant will occupy in Crystal City, has been a potential embarrassment to the region.
The attorney general’s opinion also comes as Northam is in the midst of a listening tour to African American communities in Virginia, after he and Herring both admitted in February that they, as young men, wore blackface to parties. That scandal has led to calls for Northam to resign and has imperiled Herring’s plan to run for governor in 2021.
Virginia has struggled with how to handle Confederate monuments, flags and statues, as well as schools named after Confederate leaders. It’s an issue that came to a boil nationally in 2015 when a man shot and killed nine black worshipers at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. The shooter, Dylann Roof, posted a photo of himself with a Confederate flag on social media.
In 2017, a rally by white separatists, neo-Nazis and white nationalists protesting the pending removal of a Confederate monument in Charlottesville turned violent and resulted in the death of an anti-Nazi demonstrator.
Jefferson Davis Highway was named in 1922 in response to a request from the United Daughters of the Confederacy to build a Southern transcontinental highway in Davis’s honor.
The road has at least 18 different local names in Virginia, Levine said, adding that Davis was indicted on a charge of treason against the United States in 1865. He was pardoned in 1868 and never tried.