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County won’t rename Sully District, pushing instead for more education on its history

The Sully District Governmental Center (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Fairfax County has opted not to move forward with a potential Sully District renaming.

Sully District Supervisor Kathy Smith announced at yesterday’s board meeting that she believes “the best step forward at this time is to retain” the name of the magisterial district, which encompasses the southwestern corner of Fairfax County.

Based on input from virtual town halls, emails, and community conversations, she proposed instead finding new ways to educate residents and visitors about the area’s history, particularly at the plantation in Chantilly that gave the district its name and is now the Sully Historic Site.

“In working on a path forward, I am actively talking with the NAACP, the county’s equity officer and the Fairfax County Park Authority executive director about ways we can have a more honest conversation about the history of our country, county and the Sully District,” Smith said in her board matter.

Supported without further discussion by the full Board of Supervisors, the decision concludes a months-long effort to gather public feedback after the county’s 2021 Redistricting Advisory Committee (RAC) recommended name changes for Sully and the former Lee District earlier this year.

After completing its primary task of redrawing the county’s electoral district maps, the committee was charged in January with reviewing whether to rename any districts based on possible historical ties to the Confederacy, slavery or racism.

According to a report finalized in March, Sully District was named after the plantation built by Richard Bland Lee, the first person to represent Northern Virginia in Congress. It said four generations of humans had been enslaved and trafficked at the property, including over 100 people during Lee’s tenure as owner.

When Lee inherited the land from his father in 1787, he received 29 enslaved people, according to the park authority’s history of the site, which features Lee’s 225-year-old house as well as 120 acres of park, gardens, a smokehouse and other structures.

While the website acknowledges the presence of slavery, it refers to the property as Lee’s “country home.” Smith’s board matter suggested that the county be more active and creative in providing information and programming about that aspect of the site’s history.

Smith said people weighed in with a variety of perspectives on whether to rename Sully District, including at town halls held on June 2 and Sept. 1, but the “most important thing I heard in these conversations was the need to heal our community.”

“The best way to do this is to work on ways to tell the true story of our sometimes complicated and misunderstood history and that of the Sully District specifically,” she said. “One way to do this is to educate the public about how land was developed, who benefitted and who was marginalized in the process.”

In addition to reevaluating what stories are told at the Sully Historic Site, the county could highlight historically Black neighborhoods affected by its westward expansion, similar to efforts to preserve Gum Springs in the Mount Vernon area.

Public hearing on Lee District renaming set

The Board of Supervisors adopted Franconia as Lee District’s new name on June 28, but the county’s code must still be formally amended to reflect the change.

The board agreed yesterday to schedule a public hearing for 4:30 p.m. on Dec. 6.

Supervisor Rodney Lusk noted that the renaming process for his district started well before the RAC began working on its report. He proposed exploring a possible change when the board directed staff to compile an inventory of places with Confederate names on June 23, 2020.

His office held town hall meetings on March 5 and Aug. 5, 2021 that were attended by “hundreds of residents,” according to Lusk.

“The genesis for the public hearing…dates back to June of 2020 and comes on the heels of numerous public meetings, dedicated working groups, personal conversations, and input from many, many residents,” Lusk said.

The Franconia District office is currently reviewing options for a grant program to assist businesses, nonprofits, and community organizations financially affected by the name change, according to its website.