Alexandria Letter: History’s Lessons

Alexandria Letter: History’s Lessons

Letter to the Editor

To the Editor:

An open letter to Mayor Allison Silberberg.

Your council voted unanimously to approve changing the name of Jefferson Davis Highway. Do you, your council or anyone who testified know anything about Jefferson Davis?

In case you don’t, here is a little background: he graduated from West Point in 1828 (where he would forge strong relationships with future generals who fought on both sides of the Civil War), served as an officer in the Mexican American War, was elected to Congress (both Houses), and served as Secretary of War under President Buchanan. While a senator, he authored several bills that helped the Union, including one that started the Soldiers Home in Washington, D.C. that serves indigent veterans to this day. Davis also served as President of the Confederate States. It is written that he did not want or campaign for this office. This new “nation” called on him to be their leader — so after much angst, he resigned his seat in the U.S. Senate, and became President of the Confederate States. He would later call it the saddest day of his life.

None of Davis' achievements or his sadness for leaving the Senate to take the role of President of the Confederacy or the fact that he owned slaves to work his plantation in his home state of Mississippi can excuse his actions. Most of us in today's world (including me) find the concept of owning another human deplorable, especially as we look back with our 21st century glasses. I do however feel it is possible to be proud of one's southern heritage while at the same time denouncing the inhumane practice of slavery.

I also read that you suggested the name be changed to Patrick Henry Highway. While Mr. Henry was a framer of the United States and an eloquent speaker — most known for his “give me liberty or give me death” speech, this man of liberty also owned slaves, and believed fervently in a limited federal government. These two men had very similar views, and historians suggest that Patrick Henry and other Founding Fathers would have most likely been on the side of the Confederacy.

My point is that if we look deep enough into our past, we are likely find something deplorable about all famous people. I applaud your desire to right the wrongs of the past, but where do we stop? Do we tear down the street signs, monuments and memorials of every person who made bad decisions and fought on the wrong side of the Civil War?

This week in a book club that I lead in one of our local jails, we discussed biographies of famous Americans. After talking about folks like Hamilton, Jefferson and Lincoln, I asked inmates how they felt about proposed name changes like Jefferson Davis Highway. Our book club is a group of native born Americans — seven white, six black, two from the Middle East, one from El Salvador and one from Greece. The vote in this fairly diverse group of men was unanimous to keep the name the same. hat was more interesting is that two of the men (both black and in their 60s) grew up in Alexandria, lived through the days of segregation and attended Parker Gray High School were the most adamant about keeping the name as is. Their reasoning was that it is better to keep the past alive so that future generations don’t forget the struggles they had to endure. The group also felt the money and effort to change the name could be much better spent on some of the poorer neighborhoods of Alexandria, Others felt it would lead to healthy discussions like the one we had this morning. Even though most of these inmates haven't voted or won't be allowed to vote for years, I feel it is important that you heard their voices as well as mine.

I hope you and your council will consider these observations.

Robert Paxton