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General Assembly Votes to Rename Jefferson Davis Highway

Street signs
Lawmakers voted to strip Jefferson Davis' name from Route 1 in Virginia, as the state continues to reckon with its Confederate past. (Photo: Roberto Roldan/VPM News)

By January, no section of Route 1 in Virginia will be named Jefferson Davis Highway.

The General Assembly gave final approval on Tuesday to a bill, sponsored by Del. Joshua Cole (D-Fredericksburg), that would rename Route 1 to “Emancipation Highway.” The bill includes a clause delaying its impact until the start of 2022.

Cole said this was intended to give localities enough time to vote on their own name, if they don’t like one state lawmakers have chosen.

“All we are saying is ‘You have until the end of this year to pick a new name, otherwise we will pick one for you,’” he said.

Many localities have already moved away from the “Jefferson Davis Highway” name in recent years as communities across the South grapple with the legacy of the Confederacy and Lost Cause. Davis was president of the short-lived Confederate States of America.

Officials in Alexandria and Fairfax County voted to change the name to Richmond Highway in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

Other localities are already in the process of changing the name and are awaiting final approval. 

The city of Richmond voted earlier this year to give its portion of Route 1 the same name, although the street signs have yet to be changed. Prince William County’s application for renaming a 12-mile stretch to Richmond Highway was approved by Virginia Commonwealth Transportation Board last November. In the Richmond region, only Chesterfield County still keeps the Jefferson Davis name.

Local governments will be asked to foot the bill for renaming, with cost estimates ranging from $18,000 in Caroline County to $373,000 in Chesterfield County.

It’s also likely the process laid out by the General Assembly will result in Route 1 taking on different names in different parts of Virginia. Asked if that could cause any confusion, Jo Anne Maxwell, head of legislative affairs for the Virginia Department of Transportation, said the state isn’t concerned.

“In Henrico County Route 1 is called Brook Road and in Hanover it’s called Washington Highway,” Maxwell said. “So, they are already different names and I’ve never heard complaints about confusion.”

Proponents of the name change have said the time is past due to remove Davis from a place of honor, given that his name and rabid support of slavery are now widely considered offensive.

Only one person spoke in opposition to Cole’s bill as it moved through the General Assembly’s committee process.

Robert Lamb, a resident of Spotsylvania County, told the Senate Transportation Committee that he thinks the bill would be a “nuisance and a cost inconvenience” for businesses and residents along Route 1 who may need to change stationary or business cards. He also said he didn’t support the state exercising control over local governments.

“A lot of localities have chosen, for whatever reason, not to [rename], so why in the world would you impose a fake dictate on them,” he said.

In response, Sen. Scott Surrovell (D-Fairfax) said he believed the bill was “appropriate,” because it gives localities time to decide a new name for themselves. He pointed out that it was the General Assembly, not localities, who memorialized Route 1 as Jefferson Davis Highway in 1922 at the request of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

“What the General Assembly giveth, the General Assembly can taketh away,” he said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the clause takes place in 2021; it should have said 2022. It's been updated.

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