Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Renamings are unfolding all around us.

District of Columbia schools are finalizing a new label for the high school named for pro-segregation President Woodrow Wilson (among the final seven candidates is William Syphaxthe son of former Arlington House enslaved workers who became an education activist.)

Alexandria’s school board last month voted to remove the names of segregationist T.C. Williams from its high school and that of Confederate naval officer Matthew Maury from an elementary school.

The Falls Church school board just voted to remove the names of founding fathers George Mason and Thomas Jefferson from its high school and elementary school because they were slaveowners.

Fairfax County is getting started on de-Confederatizing streets, parks and statues, including its section of Lee Highway.

In Arlington, the county board on Dec. 12 agreed to re-christen the park in the Lyon Park neighborhood named for legislator-duelist Henry Clay to instead honor Zitkala-Ša, a noted Native American activist and writer who lived nearby.

The proposal to remove Robert E. Lee’s name from Arlington House was introduced by Rep. Don Beyer on Tuesday night.

And on Dec. 10, the 25-member working group of the nonprofit Lee Highway Alliance announced it had narrowed choices for renaming that thoroughfare to five. There’s a preference for Mildred & Richard Loving Avenue, honoring the couple who fought for marriage equality for interracial couples.

(Other finalists: abolitionist legislator and attorney John M. Langston; Virginia civil rights pioneer Ella Josephine Baker; Dr. Edward Morton, the first Black physician in North Arlington and, finally, the unglamorous but practical “Main Street.”)

The problem, as I see it, is that the Lovings — whose drama prompted a Supreme Court ruling in 1967 — lived not in Arlington but in Caroline County. That jurisdiction to our south has an historic marker and a website blogpost honoring the Lovings, but no named street.

When I queried Jeff Sili, chairman of the Caroline Board of Supervisors, he expressed reluctance.

“It is most likely not widely known, but the children and grandchildren of Mr. and Mrs. Loving are still very much alive. They happen to reside in my district. I am well acquainted with Peggy Loving Fortune, their daughter and only surviving child and hold her in high esteem,” he added. “The problem with these efforts is that the surviving family has strong feelings about these efforts, statues, renaming of roads etc. They do not want this and the attention it brings. We in Caroline try to be sensitive to their wishes and how they view these efforts and the Loving story. I would like nothing better than to see her remembered in this way, but must defer to the wishes of the family.”

Few of these renamings come without controversy. I prefer that we commemorate Arlington personages.

I also recall several tips that emerged in past debates. The name should be pronounceable, lest people resist using it. Don’t commission a cost analysis or a survey if you’re going to ignore the results — people tend to embrace these exercises as votes.

And during the renaming of Washington-Lee-cum-Liberty High School two years ago, school staff stressed that plantations aren’t cruel to people, people are.

If we disqualify slave-dependent plantation names, that would rule out Arlington, Wakefield, Woodlawn, Abingdon and Westover. Which would mean a lot of new signage.

The Dec. 13 controlled demolition of the Holiday Inn at Rosslyn removed a structure that since 1972 had hosted countless high school reunions and dinners for the Arlington Civic Federation and the Arlington Historical Society. The plan is to rebuild.

And get ready for another demolition of a memory-laden Arlington fixture.
George Mason University announced that it has begun the process of decommissioning to take down the former Kann’s Department store, which operated at Virginia Square from 1951-75.

The dust will fly on March 1, 2021, at which point the university’s Arlington campus will begin erecting its new 500,000 square-foot digital innovation center.