Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

The de-Confederatization of 21st-century Arlington proceeds.

On Sept. 5, County Board Chair Christian Dorsey joined Del. Mark Levine on Route 1 in Crystal City to fold up one of the dismantled signs that for decades honored Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

The county Transportation Division set to work over the following days replacing all the Jeff Davis signs, the sight of which, County Manager Mark Schwartz recently confirmed to me, had irked merchants and development planners in the Crystal City area that joins with Alexandria (which earlier had also changed its Route 1 stretch to the more-neutral Richmond Highway).

“Jefferson Davis had no known connection to this region,” Dorsey said at the media photo op for the change. “The very designation was a direct and antagonistic response to the proposed [nationwide] Lincoln Highway. It symbolized white supremacy in a Jim Crow South.”

The defenestration of Davis, endorsed in a letter to Arlington leaders from Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, cost $17,000. Though pursued for years, it occurred after only newly acquired permission from Richmond, where legislators since the 1920s had guarded their efforts to enshrine names like Davis and Robert E. Lee in conspicuous locations.

Southern romantic hero Lee, of course, enjoyed special status in Arlington given his 30-year affiliation with Arlington House—which in 1955 was officially named by Congress as The Robert E. Lee Memorial.

But our patriotic local leaders in the 1920s went overboard, in my view, when they joined a southern regional push and put Lee’s name, not just on the new Lee Highway portion running through Arlington, but also on a parallel road they called Lee Boulevard. Due to easily predictable confusion, that one was renamed in 1952 as what we know today as Arlington Blvd., or Route 50.

The Lost Cause crowd remained influential, you can tell, in 1935, when Arlington recast most of its street names. A comparison of old and new shows the leaders removed names of several Union officers–Grant St., Grant Ave., Sherman Ave., Sheridan St. (Because they could, they also deleted a Pocahontas St.)

Speculation that the currently active Lee Highway Alliance has a name change as part of its planning for re-imagining that major road is unfounded, according to its vice president, Sandra Chesrown.

Historical name changes can spawn bitter debate, so they can be slow to be accepted and implemented. This summer’s switch from Washington-Lee High School to Washington Liberty—which the school system says costs $224,300–remains a work in progress.

I still see a W-L yard sign on Washington Blvd. reading “Keep the name.” And the lettering on the dugouts at the school’s baseball field at N. Quincy St. and Washington Blvd. still says Washington-Lee.

The school system took funds from the Future Budget Years Reserve, I was told by spokesman Frank Bellavia. That amount “covered signage at the school as well as new materials with the new name such as uniforms, athletic equipment and music stands,” though conveniently, most existing uniforms had used the initials rather than Lee’s name.

“There was also changing the URL and the name on various webpages as well as social media accounts,” Bellavia said. The school district worked with the state and colleges and universities to assure their records reflect the new name. “The biggest undertaking was re-stamping all of the library books to say Washington-Liberty.”

A cache of Arlington-related historical documents is making its way from Richmond back to our county.

Arlington Public Library Director Diane Kresh told me that a cargo van of boxes from the Library of Virginia will arrive later this month containing “non-circuit court” material that most likely includes property tax books, teachers’ registers and election papers dating back to 1850.

“Our archivist will assess them to determine their scope and significance,” she said. Results will be displayed at the library’s renovated archives at the Woodmont building.