A sign for Jefferson Davis Highway in Woodbridge. (Brittany Greeson/The Washington Post)

Fairfax County recently began a process that could lead to the renaming of two high schools that honor Confederate generals. Some at Princeton University want to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from buildings, citing his segregationist policies. Both actions are part of a national debate over who should be honored with school and street names and statues.

The argument for removing references to Confederate generals is straightforward: Those associated with slavery and other shameful elements of our history should not be celebrated. Opponents of the name changes counter that few historical figures can live up to today’s standards, and that if we wiped away every name that had a bad association, we would be left with few people to honor.

But a simple test could guide us in these decisions. If a historical figure is being honored principally for an act of human oppression — for instance, taking up arms against the United States in order to perpetuate slavery — that honor should be removed. But if a school, bridge or town is named to recognize a person’s positive contribution to society, it should stay — even if that person has other negative associations. We should ask ourselves what we are celebrating, and act accordingly.

Arlington, where I live, provides two major examples. Running through the county is Jefferson Davis Highway. No one can claim Davis is being honored for anything other than his leadership of the pro-slavery rebellion. It’s not as though his service in President Franklin Pierce’s Cabinet earned him the tribute. It’s clear to me his name should be removed from the highway.

Running parallel to Jefferson Davis Highway is the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Washington was a slave owner, an aspect of his life that makes most Americans uncomfortable. But the parkway was not named to honor his role in that oppressive institution. The name appears throughout the country because Washington led us to independence and helped establish the good-government principles that have served us so well.

This approach does not mean all questions will be easy to answer. What about Union Gen. Philip Sheridan, who has a statue and circle named for him in the District? As Post columnist Charles Lane has pointed out, Sheridan helped defeat slavery and defend freedmen from the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan — then pushed Native Americans off their land.

We can’t remove the names of everyone who doesn’t meet our modern tests of justice. And, of course, there will be some whose actions were so offensive, even in their own time, that we might choose to remove their names from a school or road even if they were not being honored for what now is considered a dishonorable act.

Does this test mean that all Southerners of the Civil War era should be removed from places of honor? Many certainly should be, but worthy individuals could replace those who stood for slavery. Amos Akerman, a white quartermaster in the Confederate Army, was — after the war, as U.S. attorney general — an advocate for the rights of freed slaves and a crusader against the Ku Klux Klan. Robert Smalls, a black Southerner born into slavery, became a hero for the Union and a congressman. We could proudly replace Davis’s name on Route 1 with the name of either of these sons of Dixie.

Those who somehow still believe the Confederate cause was noble will object to any change. But most of us, even those who feel attached to Southern figures associated with the war, can agree that we shouldn’t be honoring the Confederate mission.

Let’s use this test — a candid assessment of an honor — to make such choices. We can’t erase the messiness of history, but we can make judgments about what causes to celebrate.