Alexandria’s dramatic attempt to revisit its Civil War-era history appears to have stalled, two months after the city council voted to remove the name of Jefferson Davis from a major highway and move a controversial statue of a Confederate soldier from a busy Old Town intersection.
State legislators who represent the city told the council Tuesday night that they won’t introduce a bill in Richmond to relocate the “Appomattox” statue because to do so would diminish their effectiveness on other issues.
As for the proposed renaming of Jefferson Davis Highway, city officials have yet to announce how they will solicit community suggestions on what to call the roadway, although city spokesman Craig Fifer says he hopes to have a process in place by the end of December.
The all-Democratic council voted unanimously in September to rename the roadway and try to move the statue.
The depiction of the south-facing Confederate soldier, unarmed and in mourning for his dead comrades, “conjures up something I cannot agree with. I cannot support it,” council member John Taylor Chapman, who is African American, said at the time. “Because [Confederates] would have continued the enslavement of people who look like me.”
On Wednesday, Chapman — who has since started a tour company that focuses on freed slaves in Alexandria — said he was disappointed that state lawmakers would not seek permission to move the statue from the Republican-majority General Assembly.
“What we heard last night is they don’t want to go forward with it for political reasons, because it would hurt their personal standing,” he said.
State Sen. Adam Ebbin (D), the senior local legislator, told the council that there was no reason to think the legislature would approve an exemption from a state law that prohibits the relocation of war memorials.
“It wouldn’t help us advance the rest of our priorities, and it’s not a productive use of our time,” Ebbin said.
Del. Charniele Herring (D) agreed, adding that there is no legal basis for requesting an exemption. Del. Mark Levine (D) said that after the council’s vote, he received about a dozen calls opposing the statue’s move and none in favor.
Ebbin had earlier signaled the unlikelihood of getting such a bill through the legislature, calling it “a non-starter” unless the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which owns the statue, would publicly back the idea of moving it. Mayor Allison Silberberg (D), who met with the group’s local president, said the organization would not take such a stance.
Alexandria’s city attorney has said that moving the 1889 statue therefore may require that state law be changed or rescinded — an unlikely prospect given that the legislature passed a bill early this year to strengthen that law.
However, the bill was vetoed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), whose spokesman said Wednesday that “it is the governor’s position that dispositions of these monuments are up to the cities and counties to do with them as they see fit.”
A task force is working on a statewide guide on how communities can do that, McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said.
The statue has long been a sore point for some Alexandria residents, who say it glorifies the army that fought to retain slavery in the Civil War. Others call it a legitimate historical marker, occupying the spot where a local regiment mustered to retreat from the city just before Union troops seized Alexandria in 1861.
The council had proposed moving the statue a total of about 20 feet, from the middle of the intersection of Washington and Prince streets to the lawn of the Lyceum, a local history museum.
Although that proposal may be stalled, Silberberg said Wednesday that the renaming of Jefferson Davis Highway — the name given by the state to U.S. Route 1 in the 1930s to honor the president of the Confederacy — is moving ahead.
In Alexandria, the name is used on street signs north of First Street, although the highway splits into Patrick Street and Henry Street in the heart of the city. Fairfax County, south of Alexandria, calls the road Richmond Highway, while Arlington has retained the Confederate name.
Alexandria’s council batted around a few renaming options in September, including Richmond Highway, Patrick Henry Highway and others, but ultimately decided to seek suggestions from residents.
Only about five people offered ideas right after the vote, Fifer said. But more ideas will be solicited once a formal process is in place.
We’re asking if you could rename Jefferson Davis Highway, what would it be called? Here are some of the submissions we’ve received so far.
William Tecumseh Sherman Highway
-Stephen from Alexandria
Richmond Highway - because it neither honors nor offends anyone
- Dan from Falls Church
-Craig from Fairfax
Robert E. Lee Memorial Highway
-Nick from Alexandria
Patrick Henry Street (Non-controversial, simple continuation of Patrick and Henry Streets.)
-Dylan from Alexandria
Barack Obama Highway (instead of the Confederate President, name it after the first African American President)
-Beth from Arlington