Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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The Arlington County Board has chosen to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War by removing the name of Jefferson Davis from the main drag of Crystal City.

Well, not quite. The Sept. 20 vote to rename Jeff Davis highway “Long Bridge Drive” was done partly in anticipation of a revitalized office conglomerate that the county is striving to reclaim from its four-decade-old glass frigidity. The new name plays off the spanking new Potomac-side green space called Long Bridge Park, which the county built on an industrial site.

“We are about to get some real activity in that area,” said board chairman Chris Zimmerman, so “it is important to have a name that…relates to Arlington.”

These are tricky issues. Renamers must balance the value of maintaining historic flavor against the value of tribute-paying.

Those of us who grew up in Virginia know well how the state that was that tragic war’s most fought-over territory continued more than a century later to display its southern sympathies. When it celebrated the Civil War’s Centennial in the early 1960s-as the civil rights movement was approaching its climax-the tone of the re-enactments and ceremonies was one of moral parity between the two sides.

This slant was brought home by Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust, a Virginian and a Civil War historian whom I heard this May at the Kennedy Center delivering the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Jefferson lecture. She decried the refusal by many southerners to acknowledge slavery as the war’s root cause.

In this view it follows that Jefferson Davis was a defender of an immoral institution and a traitor to his country.

But not everyone is purist on this-we haven’t heard proposals to rename Lee Highway even though Robert E. Lee could be similarly negatively characterized.

Abandoning Davis didn’t thrill the Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board, and Arlington historian Kathryn Holt Springston also opposed it, telling me Davis was honored simply as a famous Virginian.

On the far side of Crystal City, proposals for a renaming were heard in 2007 when Alexandria was rebuilding T.C. Williams High School. It originally was named in 1965 for a school superintendent who in the 1950s had championed Virginia’s “massive resistance” to integration. Alexandria Mayor William Euille, a T.C. alum, opposed the renaming because the existing name was too much a part of his life and local history. That complex but authentic view prevailed.

But Arlington’s different. In the 1990s, it slapped the name Science Focus on a school long named for white supremacist author Thomas Nelson Page.

Arlington officials are clever enough to make their case for the Davis renaming on practical grounds. State ownership of Jefferson Davis Highway transferred to the county in 2010, they note, and the current street “has no amenities and poor drainage.” Upgrades will transform into “a tree-lined boulevard with sidewalks, bike lanes and transit stops in the next year.”

Planners first thought they’d name the road “Long Bridge Park Drive” until board member Walter Tejada suggested shortening it. (I agree. Too many nouns-like Wolf Trap Farm Park.)

So I’m onboard for the de-Confederate-izing, an improvement that takes effect next April. Jefferson Davis the man was a mediocrity. And the invocation of Long Bridge, which existed during the Civil War and for decades after, is equally historic.

 


Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at [email protected]

 

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