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Opinion paves way to rename ‘racist’ Jefferson Davis Highway

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RICHMOND, Va. — The portion of Jefferson Davis Highway that runs through Arlington County could be renamed as early as this summer thanks to the discovery of a loophole in state law and a legal opinion from the Virginia attorney general.

Attorney General Mark Herring said the name change does not need approval from the General Assembly. Instead, the Commonwealth Transportation Board has authority to rename the section of Jefferson Davis Highway if Arlington County makes such a request, the opinion said.

Herring’s opinion was requested by Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria. Levine opposes having a road named after Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America.

“In Arlington County, one of the most diverse and progressive localities in the nation, we are saddled with a primary highway that honors a racist traitor and slave owner who led the fight to take up arms against our nation in order to preserve the brutal system of slavery,” Levine said in a newsletter to constituents.

“In that brutal Civil War, more Americans died than in all of our other wars combined. We still live with the terrible legacy of that ruthless and once-legal system of terror that represents America’s greatest shame.”

Before Herring issued his opinion, the general understanding was that local governments lacked authority to change names that the General Assembly had placed on certain roads.

Several years ago, the attorney general’s office issued an advisory opinion saying city governments had the power to rename state highways but county governments didn’t. Last year, legislators killed a bill to authorize local governments to rename highways in their jurisdictions.

On Jan. 1, the section of Jefferson Davis Highway through the city of Alexandria was renamed Richmond Highway to match the name the road has always carried in Fairfax County.

To change the highway’s name in Arlington County, Levine took things into his own hands. He found a loophole in a footnote to transportation legislation that the General Assembly passed in 2012.

That legislation deleted a line in state law prohibiting the Commonwealth Transportation Board from changing the names of “highways, bridges or interchanges as have been or hereafter be named by the General Assembly.”

According to the opinion Herring released Thursday, lawmakers’ actions in 2012 showed “clear legislative intent to empower the CTB to rename transportation facilities that were originally named by the General Assembly.”

“Accordingly, it is my opinion that the Commonwealth Transportation Board may change the name of those portions of Jefferson Davis Highway located in Arlington County, provided that its Board of Supervisors adopts a resolution requesting the renaming,” the opinion said.

The designation of Jefferson Davis Highway began almost a century ago. In 1922, the United Daughters of the Confederacy asked that a Southern transcontinental highway be named to honor Davis, who was a senator from the state of Mississippi before becoming the first and only president of the Confederacy.

The Virginia General Assembly’s response was to name Highway 1 as the Jefferson Davis Highway, stretching from Washington, D.C., to the North Carolina line. Today, Jefferson Davis Highway also can go by other names, such as U.S. Route 1 and Route 18.

Some people want to keep the name as Jefferson Davis Highway. More than 600 people signed an online petition saying renaming the road would be “a slap in the face to U.S. soldiers as a whole and should not be permitted to happen.” However, more than 4,300 signed a petition supporting the name change.

Levine said Arlington County supervisors could ask for the name change this month — and then the request would go to the Commonwealth Transportation Board.

“If all goes well, Arlington street signs could be changed as early as this summer,” he said.

Levine said times have changed since the United Daughters of the Confederacy sought to honor Davis and preserve his legacy.

It’s 2019. It is not 1865, nor 1922, nor even 1953,” Levine said. “We live in a post-Charlottesville time. And the vast majority of Northern Virginia no longer wants to honor the Confederacy or the racist legacy of Jefferson Davis.”

By Alexandra Zernik/Capital News Service

Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students participating in the program provide state government coverage for Virginia’s community newspapers and other media outlets, under the supervision of Associate Professor Jeff South.

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