“There’s an emotive, a visceral reaction to that name, and it gives me chills,” said Anika Kwinana, a member of the advisory group. “When I mention it to people, it draws a smile. It will also set a precedent for all the other Robert E. Lee [place] names.”
The Lee Highway Alliance, a business and community group that organized the working group on renaming the highway, has been discussing a name change for three years, although it only got down to work this past summer, said Ginger Brown, the alliance’s executive director.
“The Loving name has both Virginia and national importance,” she said, “and it encompasses the idea of justice. It’s also short, easy to spell and can be used in branding for our businesses. I think it’s a fantastic change.”
The renaming effort is part of a movement that has spread across Virginia and the South to reconsider the Confederate monikers on roads, buildings, plazas and statues. It was fueled by the 2015 deadly shooting by a white supremacist at a historic Black church in Charleston, S.C. That state subsequently decided to remove the Confederate battle flag from its Capitol grounds. The movement gathered further momentum when protests erupted nationwide after the death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police in May.
Over the past two years, Alexandria, Arlington and Prince William County have all turned Jefferson Davis Highway, the roadway once honoring the president of the Confederacy, into Richmond Highway. In June, “Appomattox,” the 131-year-old Confederate statue that stood in the middle of Alexandria’s main artery, was removed. And four of the five Confederate figures that once stood along Richmond’s Monument Avenue have come down. Schools that once bore the names of Confederates have been renamed and a small, mostly White town even erected a “Black Lives Matter” banner.
Unlike in Richmond, where some Monument Avenue residents objected to the felling of the statues, residents along Arlington’s Lee Highway don’t appear to be attached to the name of their street, Brown said. They have been more concerned with revitalizing the retail and housing mix, adding trees and reducing traffic congestion.
The panel will inform the County Board on Tuesday of its recommendation for subsequent approval, and then the recommendation will head either to the Commonwealth Transportation Board or the Virginia General Assembly, who need to agree to the change because Lee Highway is a state route.
Just in case the county and state boards disagree, the working group also offered other choices, in this order: John M. Langston Boulevard, for an abolitionist who became the first Black congressman from Virginia; Ella Baker Boulevard, for the civil rights and human rights activist; Dr. Edward T. Morton Avenue, for a Black physician who lived along the road and in 1931 was the first African American to run for the county board; and Main Street, which several group members warned could spark tensions with other neighborhood groups who consider their road arteries to be Arlington’s “Main Street.”
The advisory group originally came up with 20 names for Lee Highway, but the community’s preference was clear. Upon questioning from the panel, the county staff said they’d prefer a name that was no more than 15 characters long so that it would easily fit on standard street signs, but the group members noted that several existing streets violate that recommendation.
Several group members praised all the choices as good options — and Arlington residents may see some of them yet. As resident and panelist Jim Todd noted: “We still have to rename Old Lee Highway.”