History Weighs the Full Range on Street Renaming

History Weighs the Full Range on Street Renaming


In 2016 the Ad Hoc Advisory Group on Confederate Memorials and Street Names recommended and city council concurred with renaming portions of Route 1 (which the city and later the Commonwealth renamed as Richmond Highway) and allowing the typical City renaming process, requiring three-quarters of street residents to petition for a change, for all other streets potentially named for Confederates. In 2021, city hall temporarily reduced the signature requirement to only one-quarter for one year, implicitly requiring a kind of supermajority to keep these street names, but the time period elapsed without any such successful renaming petition being filed. Ignoring these precedents, which presumably he had supported, Mayor Wilson on Jan. 10 proposed a scheme whereby three such streets would be renamed each year, notwithstanding their residents' objections. The proposal would reverse the city council's earlier decision to leave street renamings to the city's regular legal process. 

The Mayor's proposal should be viewed as political rhetoric rather than history because history weighs the full range of facts and interpretations, whereas the mayor's proposal presents selectively skewed assertions about the historic figures for whom three streets are now named. He would task the Office of Historic Alexandria with renaming recommendations, but Office of Historic Alexandria staff pointing out the following countervailing factors would risk their jobs, given that the mayor has told them up front what the facts are. Among the facts the mayor omitted are: 

* Quantrell Avenue: Far from "executing nearly 200 men and boys" (100,000 Union soldiers were age 15 or under) during William Quantrill's raid on Lawrence, Kansas, typically they were Jayhawkers (a Union-allied guerrilla group which had committed similar actions in nearby Missouri). 

* Forrest Street (whose name easily could be adjusted by dropping an "r"): Former Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, as the Ku Klux Klan's first “Grand Wizard,” after only a year, faced with an ungovernable membership employing methods he disapproved, ordered the Klan dissolved and their costumes destroyed, and withdrew from participation, but few Klansmen complied. 

* Taney Avenue: Unlike the much younger personages animating the years just before, during, and after the American Civil War, Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney was born during the American Revolution and became politically active while many of the Revolution generation were still circulating, so he had better insight into their intent. Thomas Jefferson, for example, did not even realize slavery would become controversial for almost a half century (cf. his "Fire Bell in the Night" letter). Taney's Dred Scott decision's reasoning persuaded Lincoln and other abolitionists that constitutional amendments were needed to expand civil rights to Blacks. Taney remained loyal to the Union until his death and, therefore, could not be considered a Confederate, even if his strict adherence to the Constitution frustrated Lincoln. 

The Mayor's criticism of Chief Justice Roger Taney's reasoning implicitly indicts judicial integrity and independence, where courts are supposed to interpret law based on the framers' intent. Instead, Mayor Wilson would have a politicized court making decisions based presumably on a guess as to how reasoning might be viewed in the unforeseeable future, a task so untenable as to result in arbitrary and capricious jurisprudence. 

City hall's handling of this topic is a case study in bad faith where decisions are made before the public hearing and where facts are not fairly weighed, but cherry picked to support a politically predetermined outcome. 

Dino Drudi