By Cameron Jones
Capital News Service
The Virginia General Assembly has approved a bill renaming sections of U.S. Route 1 almost 100 years after it was named in honor of the first and only president of the Confederacy.
The bill, introduced by Del. Joshua Cole, D-Fredericksburg, passed the House earlier this month with a 70-28 vote. The Senate passed the measure earlier this week with a 30-9 vote.
Counties and cities have until Jan. 1, 2022 to change their portion of Jefferson Davis Highway to whatever name they choose, or the state will change it to Emancipation Memorial Highway.
“Change the name on your own, or the General Assembly will change it for you,” Cole said to House committee members.
Sections of the highway that run through Stafford, Caroline, Spotsylvania and Chesterfield counties will need new signage and markers, according to the bill’s impact statement. Commemorative naming signs will be replaced, along with overhead guide signs at interchanges and street-name signs. The changes are estimated to cost almost $600,000 for all localities. The changes in Chesterfield will cost an estimated $373,000 because there are 17 Jefferson Davis Highway overhead signs on Routes 288 and 150.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy conceived the plan for Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway in 1913, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Davis was a Mississippi senator who became the president of the Confederacy during the Civil War. The Virginia General Assembly designated U.S. Route 1 as Jefferson Davis Highway in 1922.
“Jefferson Davis was the president of the Confederacy, a constant reminder of a white nationalist experiment, and a racist Democrat,” Cole said. “Instead we can acknowledge the powerful act of the Emancipation Proclamation.”
Cole said the change acknowledges the positive history of the Civil War and reminds people of the emancipation and freedom that came from it.
The bill received little pushback in House and Senate committees. A Richmond City representative said their initial concern was the interpretation if districts would have the opportunity to choose a replacement name. Signs are already going up renaming the route to Richmond Highway in Richmond.
Sen. Scott A. Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, voiced his support for the bill. He responded to concern that the change dishonors a veteran. He said he believes the bill “strikes a reasonable balance” by giving counties time to rename their portion of the highway, or they will give it a default name which “doesn’t carry the political baggage.”
A poll by Hampton University and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found Virginians are still divided on changing the names of schools, streets and military bases named after Confederate leaders (44% supported the idea and 43% opposed it).
Eric Sundberg, Cole’s chief of staff, said there were two camps of people that opposed the bill. He said some were openly racist and called Cole’s office to make offensive remarks. Then there were people who said they did not want to “double dip” on renaming the portion in their respective district and wanted it all to be named Richmond Highway.
Stephen Farnsworth, professor and director at the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington, said efforts to rename the highway have never received much support in Richmond until this year.
“Virginia has rapidly moved from a commonwealth that treasured its Confederate legacy, to one that is trying to move beyond it,” Farnsworth said.
(Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.)