Something Smells. Must Be Those Confederate Street Signs.
By Steve Watkins
A short while ago I brought up the issue of Confederate street names with my neighbors in the Idlewild subdivision in Fredericksburg. The Virginia General Assembly had finally come to its senses in 2021 and voted to put the kibosh on “Jefferson Davis Highway,” as the transcontinental route had been officially named since 1922 at the request of the Daughters of the Confederacy–not a terrorist organization, but not a very culturally sensitive one, either, then or now.
The original Jefferson Davis Highway—a southern counterpoint to the northern transcontinental Lincoln Highway—started in Arlington at the 14th Street Bridge and extended south to Georgia, mostly on U.S. Route 1, and then west from there until it reached San Diego. The Daughters lobbied hard for it to run up the length of the West Coast as well, from San Diego to the Canadian border, but that didn’t happen.
The General Assembly killed the moniker after someone got around to pointing out how sketchy it was to have a prominent highway, or any highway for that matter, named for a white-supremacist slave owner from Mississippi who was also the long-dead president of the long-dead (though as-yet-unburied) secessionist Confederate States of America.
Route 1 is now “Emancipation Highway” through Fredericksburg, “Richmond Highway” in northern Virginia, and “Patriot Highway” in Spotsylvania, where they wouldn’t be caught dead using a word like “emancipation” for fear someone might think they were endorsing Critical Race Theory.
It was in the aftermath of the Route 1 name changes that I suggested to my Idlewild neighbors that perhaps it was time for us to reconsider our subdivision street names as well, many of which were named (presumably by the developers, Ryan and Ryland) for Confederate generals, including Posey, Perry, Pickett, Hampton, Wright, Hoke, Walker, and Wilcox.
A number of other streets in the city of Fredericksburg also have Confederate names: Mahone, Hays, Longstreet, Albert Rennolds, Cadmus (Wilcox’s first name), and Jubal Early among them. There’s also a whole neighborhood named Confederate Ridge. And don’t even get me started on the celebrated oceanographer and white supremacist Matthew Fontaine Maury, who after the Civil War went to Mexico to try his hand at setting up a Confederacy 2.0. Curiously, no city streets, as far as I know, with one possible exception, were named for Union officers, including in Idlewild, once a 222-acre working plantation whose original owners, the Downmans, lived in a Gothic Revival mansion they had designed and built by an architect whose name, I kid you not, was Mr. Tongue.
Robert E. Lee used the Downman House, as it was then known, as a temporary headquarters during the Civil War. So did two different Union generals, Patrick and Howe, as the fighting went back and forth. Howe didn’t earn so much as a mention when the developers came in 150 years later, scraped off all the topsoil, and laid the streets for the Idlewild subdivision, though there is a tiny two-block Patrick Street in the development’s Phase Two.
The seven slaves owned by the Downman family were counted in the 1860 census as required by law under the 3/5 Compromise—they ranged in age from 11 to 43—but not their names. The mansion burned to a shell years ago, but the pet cemetery is still there. The Downmans really loved their dogs. Nobody knows what became of the seven people they enslaved. Needless to say, no streets in Idlewild were named for the slaves, though I’m certain that the developers, assiduous historians that they must have been, would have found a way to recognize the people enslaved by the Downmans if only that darn 1860 census had been any help. (I should note that there are streets in the Estates of Idlewild named for the Downmans and their neighbors, the Landrams, slave owners all.)
In the overture to my Idlewild neighbors via our members-only Facebook page, I included a quote from Georgia’s Alexander Stephens, the then-newly-elected vice president of the Confederacy who in 1861 assured a crowd of rabid Southerners that the Confederate government rested on the “great truth” that “the negro is not equal to the white man; that … subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” Stephens also bragged to his fellow secessionists that the Confederate government was “the first, in the history of the world, based on this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
Most of my neighbors—two thirds of those who responded–Liked or Loved the post and/or wrote in support of changing the Confederate street names. Why on Earth, they said, would we want to continue honoring those who fought to defend slavery and white supremacy?
Those who disagreed—eight of the 26 respondents–lamented the cost and inconvenience, argued that there were more important issues we needed to address, and/or informed me that I was a woke liberal troublemaker and ought to find better things to do with my time than stir things up around here, and if I didn’t like the street names I could always just leave, and they’d be happy to help me pack and load up the car. I was even accused by one—accurately, as it turned out—of owning a goddamn Subaru.
But even among those eight, as much as they wanted things left the way they were, no one made any sort of positive case for honoring the Confederate generals.
A member of City Council caught wind of the exchange—I wrote something about it for the local newspaper–and told me he would have the Confederate street name issue be added to the Council agenda as New Business, though to my way of thinking it was already Very Old Business. But nothing came of it. Just before the next Council meeting, he got cold feet and said he thought it best for someone else to take the lead. So far, no one has.
There’s an old saying about trees, that the best time to plant them was twenty years ago, and the second best time is now. The same can be said for 86ing these Confederate street names, all of which could be changed if we were so inclined to recognize the contributions of civic leaders, medical heroes, Civil Rights pioneers, nonprofit workers, educators, visionaries, artists. Or, what the heck—Dogs! Cat! Trees! We could avoid altogether the risky practice of naming things after people, though I for one would still love to see a Danny McBride Boulevard somewhere in the city.
This wouldn’t be the first time Fredericksburg has changed street names in response to changing values and priorities. In an April 30, 2015 article in the Free Lance-Star, then-City Planner Erik Nelson noted that in 1933 the city restored the Colonial-period names “that had been suppressed in the heady days following American Independence.” And again, in 1969, according to Erik, the city changed and/or added a number of new street names, in further keeping with the city’s history.
The Southern Poverty Law Center says there are 2,300 roads, schools, and monuments linked to the Confederacy in 23 states, fewer than 400 of which have so far been removed or renamed. But it’s starting to happen more and more. Fairfax City just voted to change 14 streets with Confederate names, and Loudon County says it may follow suit.
Clearly there is precedent for reconsidering who we honor in Fredericksburg and other cities of the South–and how we choose to honor them. Just recently the University of Mary Washington changed the name of Trinkle Hall, which was originally named for a former Virginia governor, an outspoken segregationist and eugenicist who promoted and signed into law the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, the Forced Sterilization Act of 1924, and the Racial Segregation Act of 1926. That building is now named for the Civil Rights pioneer James Farmer, who led the Freedom Rides and taught the history of the Civil Rights Movement for a number of years at the school.
As a retired professor emeritus at UMW–hell, as a human being–I’m proud of the college for taking this action, and for making it clear to students that history isn’t fixed or static, but rather always demanding of our continuing research and reevaluation. One of my books—published in a series of historical novels for young readers I wrote for Scholastic—is titled “Fallen in Fredericksburg,” and tells the story of the first Battle of Fredericksburg through the eyes of an intrepid band of young people trying to solve a lingering mystery from the war.
We need to continue teaching the history of the Civil War, of course–and we need to continue digging deep into that history to ensure a full and honest accounting of race and racism in America and in Virginia and in Fredericksburg. But that doesn’t mean we should hold onto these Confederate street names (and monuments, like those idiots in Mathews County who want to deed the land under their Confederate memorial to the Sons of the Confederacy for, you know, safekeeping). It may be inconvenient, as some of my neighbors complained, and there are certainly other important issues we need to address, as they also argued—rather petulantly, I have to say—but it’s past time we stopped honoring those who so violently dishonored our country.
Steve Watkins, editor of Pie & Chai, is the author of 14 books, a retired professor emeritus of American literature, a recovering yoga teacher, and the father of four remarkable daughters. He is also a tree steward with the urban reforestation organization Tree Fredericksburg and founder of Rappahannock Area Beaver Believers, a wildlife advocacy group, which you’re welcome to join on Facebook. His author website is stevewatkinsbooks.com.
Art Cutline (no credit): The Downman House in Idlewild: Yeah, It’s a Metaphor.