ARLINGTON — Almost 100 years after Confederate sympathizers named a major Virginia road after the president of their lost cause, Arlington County won unanimous approval from a state transportation board to rename Jefferson Davis Highway.
The Commonwealth Transportation Board voted Wednesday to allow Arlington to change the name of the U.S. highway — commonly known as Route 1 — to Richmond Highway by Oct. 1.
The move comes after lobbying by the county, legislators, business and residential groups, and Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam.
“What we just heard, through the unanimous vote and the words of the governor, is it’s past time,” said Christian Dorsey, a Democrat and chair of the Arlington County Board. Dorsey said the street signs would be changed no later than Oct. 1.
The county has tried for years to change the road’s name but has been stymied by the General Assembly, which held the power to block requests made by counties, officials believed.
But Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, found an exception that allowed the statewide transportation board to act, if requested by the county. Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, agreed in an informal opinion in March, and one month later Arlington made the formal request.
Business owners told the board Wednesday that having addresses on Jefferson Davis Highway has cost them customers, including the loss of a convention at the hotel where the meeting was held. Other potential tenants have refused to rent space in buildings with a Jefferson Davis address, a Chamber of Commerce executive said. In addition, Google Maps and other online navigational sites have already started calling the road “Richmond Highway.”
JBG Smith, the major landlord and developer of Crystal City, and the Crystal City Civic Association also strongly supported the name change. The road runs right through the neighborhood where Amazon plans to settle over the next 10 years, although there was no public statement about the name change from the Seattle-based company. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Stacey Stewart, president of the March of Dimes, which relocated to Arlington last year, said the highway’s name is “divisive and a daily reminder of our nation’s dark and shameful history ... a painful and oppressive past.” She, like others, said the Confederate president’s name does not reflect the region’s values.
The road was named for Davis in 1922, part of an effort by the Daughters of the Confederacy as a “direct and antagonistic response” to the establishment of Lincoln Highway across the Northern states, Dorsey said. Davis, a Mississippi congressman before the Southern states seceded in 1861, had no known connection to Northern Virginia. He was accused of treason after the Civil War and was imprisoned but was released without trial.
The name was established to “terrorize” African Americans, Levine said. “Let’s not forget that Virginia was the birthplace of slavery,” he added.
U.S. 1 in South Richmond and Chesterfield County is also called Jefferson Davis Highway.
The city of Alexandria renamed its portion of the road last year, choosing the moniker Richmond Highway because that’s what it is called to the south, in Fairfax County. The Arlington portion of U.S. 1 and state Route 110 will bear the new name, the transportation board decided.
The motion sailed through with only a hint of opposition, when board member Bert Dodson of Lynchburg asked whether the board would be “overrun” with name change requests. Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine, who chairs the board, said that will be dealt with later.