There are at least 33 streets in Alexandria clearly named after Confederate military leaders, but potentially twice that many that may be related but without a clear historical record. With more than 236 street signs in Alexandria bearing the names of Confederate military leaders, not including those to Confederate President Jefferson Davis (i.e. Jefferson Davis Highway), it’s pretty clear that sorting through the city’s Confederate history isn’t going to be easy.
Over the summer, the council requested that staff research into the possibility of removing, relocating, or renaming Confederate iconography in the city. Staff reported back at the Sept. 8 City Council meeting: The cost of renaming the city streets would total $270,000, an idea many on the council quickly dismissed as infeasible. The discussion quickly honed in on smaller pieces of the Confederate puzzle: the Appomattox Statue on Prince Street, the renaming of Jefferson Davis Highway, and the flying of Confederate flags from city buildings and on city streets.
The Appomattox statue, approved by the City Council in 1888, is protected by legislation passed in 1890 by the General Assembly that requires the statue to remain, permanently, at its present location. The statue is also protected by Virginia code 15.2-1812, which prohibits the removal of memorials or monuments related to any war involving the United States. Any movement of the statue would require legislation from the General Assembly.
While similarly protected at a statewide level, the renaming of Jefferson Davis Highway was more tenable. Named in 1922 in honor of the president of the Confederate States of America, the road goes by several names throughout the state. While many localities in Virginia cannot officially rename the road, Alexandria has a special charter that allows it to alter the names of all roads within the city, including the stretch of the Jefferson Davis Highway that passes through the city. The road was named River Road until council changed the name to Jefferson Davis highway in 1953. Changing the name would cost between $15,000 and $50,000 depending on whether the replacement name was the same length.
The one notable change made at the City Council meeting specifically targeted the Confederate flag. According to City Attorney James Banks, there is a substantial amount of leeway given to the city on flags flown from government buildings, but less on what is flown on city streets. Banks advised that, in the interest of protecting the city from potential allegations of freedom of speech violations, the city specifically limit flag flying to the national, state, and city flags. However, with the prospect of this keeping the city from flying the flags of visiting dignitaries, the council instead voted specifically to prohibit the flying of the Confederate flag on General Lee’s Birthday, Jan. 19, and Confederate Memorial Day, May 24.