Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

In the latest wrinkle in the renaming battles, county Board Member Christian Dorsey said decision makers should not “cater” to those for whom name changes present an “inconvenience or a mild preference” if the current name “causes deeply hurt feelings.”

The discussion of plans to rethink labels on streets, schools and parks put on April 14 by the Arlington Committee of 100 comes as the county has empaneled a study of methodology for renaming as well as a committee planning to replace the current logo evoking the Arlington House plantation.

The plantation issue may be stickiest in these racially fraught times.

The “national conversation” on local names that some see as insensitive to minorities is “long overdue,” Dorsey told the discussion group. He linked it to the county board’s broader agenda of equity. He called for a “systemic response” to a history and political climate that “marginalizes people of color.” A solution requires “not just rhetoric, but meaningful action,” Dorsey said, citing his own role in the 2018 removal of the name of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from Arlington’s Route 1.

Past namings were done “with no clear process,” no clear record of why, Dorsey added. He called for a one that is “consistent,” that taps “the community for thoughts and perceptions,” and that assigns ultimate accountability to the county board.

Julius J.D. Spain Sr., president of the NAACP Arlington chapter, which led the charge to recast the logo, said, “It shouldn’t have taken 67 years” since Brown v. Board of Education to pursue “a logo more representative of what Arlington is today.” The state of Virginia leads the country in “density of Confederate symbols,” he said, citing research suggesting the use of plantation white columns produces oppressive symbols favored by white supremacists.

Spain applauded our school board for voting 5-0 on April 8 to reject a proposal from the McKinley neighborhood to call the school at the Reed site “Westover Village Elementary School,” opting for the safer “Cardinal School.” Aware that objections to a half-dozen plantation names could imply that the name Arlington itself could change, he said “there may come a time when we need that conversation. It would be a heavy lift. But I’m not ruling it out.”

A professional historian’s input came from Cassandra Good, assistant professor at Marymount University, who differentiated between history (based on reason and evidence) and memory or heritage (based more on often-selective memory).

When Arlington’s street names were systemized in the early 1930s, she noted, it was a period of white gentrification and heightened discrimination — with whites selecting the names.

Good warned against “myths” that names like Robert E. Lee will be forgotten if they aren’t on public monuments, or that renamings alone are the answer to social inequality. Stressing good research, she mentioned the San Francisco Board of Education’s recent backtracking on a plan to remove such names as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Evaluations of past notables should weigh the person’s “principal legacy” against community values, she reminded. “Whose voices are in the room” does matter, Good said, and we should consider logistics.

The latter could mean the costs of new signage and maps, and “inconvenient” disruptions of old habits. The complexity of the plantation question, Good said, is a “not a reason to avoid the conversation.”

***

Takeaways from the county board’s post-demolition discussion of the Febrey-Lothrop House, in which it rejected historic designation and ordered a study of options. 

Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board Chair Dick Woodruff lambasted the board for an “inexcusable…failure of leadership” in delaying preservation action until after the owner called in the wrecking ball.

Tom Colucci, attorney for the Rouse trust that owns the nine acres and is planning to sell to a homebuilder, objected to being called “greedy,” announcing that profits will go to charity.

County board member Dorsey rebutted criticism that Fairfax is better at preservation, saying Arlington, with 41 historic districts versus Fairfax’s 13, “punches above its weight.”