Alexandria Charlottesville’s confederate iconography drew international attention this weekend after a white supremacists and neo-nazis clashed with left wing groups, then a driver struck several protesters and killed 32-year-old paralegal Heather Heyer. Later, protesters in Durham, N.C., pulled down a confederate statue outside the courthouse there. In the wake of these events, some attention has again been shifted back to Alexandria’s own confederate legacy. In the wake of the Charlottesville attack, a meeting planned for the renaming of Jefferson Davis Highway was cancelled and local politicians sparred on social media over the fate of the Confederate statue.
“It is an unbelievable tragedy that has occurred in Charlottesville,” said Mayor Allison Silberberg. “Hate speech and action by white supremacists and neo-nazis have no place in Virginia or America. Hearts go out to the loved ones of those who lost their lives; [Heather Heyer and State Police Lt. H. Jay Cullen and Trooper Berke M. M. Bates, who died in a helicopter crash] ... Far more than tolerant, we’re an embracing and accepting city. We’re a city of kindness and compassion. That’s what we are about. That’s what we will continue to be about in this beloved historic city.”
Throughout 2016, an advisory group met to form recommendations on what to do about objects celebrating the confederacy. The group discussed flag policy, potential street name changes, and the Appomattox statue at the intersection of Prince and S. Washington streets. The statue is owned by the Daughters of the Confederacy and any removal or relocation of the statue would require approval from the Virginia legislature.
The Appomattox statue was erected in 1889, based on a painting by John Elder, an artist from Fredericksburg. According to an Alexandria Gazette report at the unveiling ceremony, the statue meant to honor the Seventeenth Virginia regiment. The statue was erected as part of a wave of post-Reconstruction “Lost Cause” nostalgia by the children and grandchildren of Confederate veterans, who comprised much of the crowd in attendance at the statue’s unveiling.
The City Council voted unanimously to begin the process to rename Jefferson Davis Highway and to petition the state legislature to allow the statue to be moved.
“We voted to move Appomatox to lawn of Lyceum and to add context to it,” said Silberberg. “In order to move it, must have permission from state legislature. That is state law, and they have not agreed with our position. That is where we stand on that.”
But not only did the state legislature not endorse Alexandria’s plans, none of Alexandria’s five representatives agreed to carry a bill to move the statue. This provoked a spat on Facebook earlier this week between City Councilman John Chapman and Del. Mark Levine. In a series of posts, Chapman called out Levine for boasting about helping to push forward the renaming of Jefferson Davis Highway while refusing to carry a bill allowing the city to move the Appomattox statue. Levine responded, saying he believed the statue was not celebratory the way other confederate statues were and that he believed Alexandria should not try bury its history.
A hearing scheduled for the renaming of Jefferson Davis Highway, scheduled for Aug. 17, was cancelled after the controversy in Charlottesville. The next meeting will be held Sept. 25. The final meeting is expected to be held on Oct. 5 at which point the group will make its recommendation for a new name to City Manager Mark Jinks. Citizens can also give their input on new name choices online at survey.alexandriava.gov/s3/Jefferson-Davis-Highway-Renaming.