Should City Council change the name of the stretch of U.S. 1 that runs through Fredericksburg—or let it remain Jefferson Davis Highway?
Petitioners on both sides presented their views during the public comment period at City Council’s meeting Tuesday.
University of Mary Washington Assistant Professor of Sociology Eric Bonds and two students in his political sociology class said they would like to see the highway renamed because it’s named after the president of the Confederate States of America who owned more than 100 slaves during his lifetime.
Bonds said that the request evolved out of his desire for the students to do a community involvement project that would help them develop democracy skills and not simply vote in an election and then tune out. The class overwhelmingly voted to pursue the project and researched Davis and the history of the naming of the highway after him.
“We have a choice,” he said. “We can recognize something that I recognize is not something that everyone feels similarly about. . . . One way is to create a task force to look into this issue.”
Sixteen people signed up to speak at the meeting, and some were still waiting to speak by The Free Lance-Star’s deadline.
Many who did speak before 10:40 p.m. asked City Council not to change the highway’s name because it would “erase” a piece of the city’s history. They also pointed out that Mary Washington, for whom UMW is named, owned slaves, as did her son, George Washington.
“History is a vital resource more than a many-faceted diamond; history should not be erased. TheTaliban and ISIL destroy history,” said John Johnson of Spotsylvania County.
He said that the highway signs bearing Jefferson Davis’ name are not an endorsement of his views but recognition by the city that at one time he had an important influence on what happened in the area and the nation.
Chris Ezelle, who lives in Locust Grove, also questioned who would pay all the costs of changing the name, not only on signs but on everything from business cards to addresses on retirement checks.
James Stoddard of Fredericksburg, who couldn’t make the meeting, sent an email to The Free Lance-Star saying that he was against changing the name.
“President Lincoln, had he lived, wanted a reconstruction that healed rather than further divide. The reconstruction continues today,” Stoddard wrote. “Fredericksburg should be a ‘leader’ in that healing, rather than a ‘follower’ to the area, and the United States by saying, ‘No,’ the hate stops here and we learn to live with our history, not try to rewrite it or ‘whitewash it’ with new street signs.”
The origins of Jefferson Davis Highway date back to the turn of the last century, when cars were gaining popularity and a system of roads known as auto trails were being developed. There was a proposal in 1912 to build the Lincoln Highway, which would stretch from coast to coast. Mrs. Alexander B. White, a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, came up with the idea of naming a southern, transcontinental route after Davis the next year.
Her dream was never formally realized, but there is a Jefferson Davis Highway running through Virginia and several other states. In Fredericksburg, it splits UMW’s main campus from Eagle Village, where its newest dormitory is located.
The name, due to its associations with the Confederacy and slavery, has come under fire in several other localities in recent years.