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. Read More
The public engagement process regarding a possible name change for the Sully District is kicking off next month.
A virtual meeting to discuss changing renaming the district is set for tomorrow (Thursday) at 7 p.m. A brief presentation by county staff will be followed by an online forum. Interested participants can email email@example.com to receive a meeting link.
The discussion follows a March recommendation by the Fairfax County Redistricting Advisory Committee for a name change. The committee recommended renaming the Lee and Sully districts because of the names’ historic ties to the Confederacy and slavery.
In late June, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to change the name of the Lee magisterial district to Franconia.
A spokesperson for Sully District Supervisor Kathy Smith said she has not reached a decision on whether a name change is warranted.
“Her goal is to make a decision after the meeting but doesn’t have a specific date to make a decision,” the spokesperson wrote in a statement to FFXnow.
Residents are also encouraged to share their comments and feedback by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 703-814-7100.
A decision is not expected at the forum, according to event organizers.
— Sully Supervisor Kathy L. Smith (@SullySupervisor) August 15, 2022
A formal vote won’t come for another month, but several Fairfax County supervisors indicated support yesterday (Tuesday) for using routes 29 and 50, respectively, as the official names for the roads known for now as Lee and Lee-Jackson Memorial highways.
The Board of Supervisors directed county staff by a 9-1 vote to prepare a resolution for its next meeting on Sept. 13 endorsing Route 29 and Route 50 as the new names after a year-long review process that included a community task force and public surveys.
While route numbers don’t carry the same symbolism as Arlington County renaming its portion of Lee Highway after abolitionist John Langston, board members expressed hope that the move will reduce the confusion of navigating the county in addition to discarding reminders of the area’s Confederate past.
“Frankly, calling them by the route numbers is what a lot of people already do today voluntarily, so I don’t see this as a heavy lift at all for these two major corridors and I think will chart us a better course moving forward,” Chairman Jeff McKay said.
Evoking Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, the highways were among 150 sites in the county with names whose Confederate origins were confirmed by a 2020 report from the Fairfax County History Commission. Combined, they represent over 20 miles of roadway from Chantilly on the county’s western end to the Falls Church border in the east.
Surveys of property and business owners in the corridor conducted this past spring found that they preferred the route numbers over the other options, which included following Arlington’s lead with Langston Blvd for Lee Highway.
“I think this is basically as close as we’re going to get to consensus on the names,” said Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn, who chairs the board’s transportation committee. “I think this is a very reasonable and practical way to address the challenge that we’re facing, and I think it’s a big step towards moving away from memorializing that time in history and some of those folks and really updating that.” Read More
A report recommending that Fairfax County rename its portions of Route 29 and Route 50 will go before county leaders tomorrow (Tuesday), even as concerns about the financial impact linger.
Compiled by the 26-person Confederate Names Task Force, the report details the process used to determine that Lee Highway and Lee-Jackson Memorial Highway should get new names and recommends five possible replacements for each road:
Recommended Top Five Alternative Names for Lee Highway (Route 29)
Cardinal Highway, 13 votes
Route/Highway 29, 12 votes
Langston Boulevard/Highway, 6 votes
Lincoln-Douglass Highway, 6 votes
Fairfax Boulevard/Highway, 5 votes
Recommended Top Five Alternative Names for Lee-Jackson Memorial Highway (Route 50)
Little River Turnpike, 16 votes
Unity Highway, 12 votes
Route 50, 6 votes
Fairfax Boulevard, 4 votes
Blue & Gray Highway, 3 votes
Task force chair Evelyn Spain will present the final report to the board during its regular meeting tomorrow, which will begin at 9:30 a.m.
“The Board set up this important committee to review the names of two major arterials and now we are eager to hear their report,” Board Chairman Jeff McKay told FFXnow in a statement. “Any decision to change street names is one our Board will take seriously as we consider the report as well as other community input before any decisions are made. I am proud that this Board has a strong record of focusing on racial inequities and advancing our community together.”
The two highways are among 150 landmarks in the county identified as bearing names tied to the Confederacy, according to an inventory that the Fairfax County History Commission presented to local leaders in December 2020.
The commission found that the Virginia General Assembly established Lee Highway in 1922 as a statewide route serving as a national memorial for Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
That same year, the state House and Senate Roads Committee also agreed to rename a section of Little River Turnpike after Lee and fellow Confederate Gen. Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson.
The task force recommended that both highways get new names to “accommodate the equity initiatives and growing diversity in Fairfax County,” the report says. It also acknowledges that the changes “will likely be major impositions upon the residences, businesses, and communities” in those corridors.
The group suggests that the Board of Supervisors consider providing financial assistance to those affected, if it ultimately approves the name changes.
The final report features several letters from the task force members who opposed or abstained from voting on the name changes. Objections include:
- A public survey found 23,500 respondents want to keep the names as they are and 16,265 in support of changes
- The cost to make the change, which could total $1 million to $4 million, according to county staff
- Even though the institution of slavery was evil, the name switch “erases history”
“We believe the $1M to $4M required to rename these two roads would be more effectively spent pursuing a community engagement project (e.g. an African-American Heritage Trail, a museum, and/or new historic markers),” the dissenters said, noting that Prince William County is adding to its African American History Trail. “We encourage Fairfax County to pursue similar projects.”
To coincide with Black History Month, the county launched a project last week focused on local Black and African American experiences, including support for students to identify options for new historical markers.
Angela Woolsey contributed to this report.
A task force of nearly 30 people has recommended renaming two highways in Fairfax County, following concerns that their invocation of the Confederacy runs counter to the county’s goal of creating an inclusive environment.
After months of meetings and debate, the Confederate Names Task Force voted 20-6 yesterday (Tuesday) in favor of a change for Lee Highway (also known as Route 29) and 19-6 for Lee-Jackson Memorial Highway (Route 50), with at-large member Tim Thompson abstaining.
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and state’s Commonwealth Transportation Board would have to sign off on any name changes.
Some committee members argued that renaming the highways would “erase history.” Jenee Lindner, one of four Springfield District representatives, said doing so was wrong.
“If we’re going to move forward, let’s eradicate that term, ‘erasing history.’ It’s not true. Personally, we’re erasing stupidity and injustice and immorality,” Pastor Paul Sheppard from Providence District countered.
Dranesville District representative Barbara Glakas, a retired teacher from Fairfax County Public Schools, said if Confederate leaders had their way, the U.S. might look more like Europe, with fragmented countries, and slavery might have continued for much longer.
The task force’s votes diverged from the results of the public survey, where 23,500 respondents said they support keeping the names as they are, and 16,265 called for changing them.
“We can’t just ignore that opinion, whether you agree with it or not,” said Braddock District’s Robert Floyd, who voted against the recommendations and was one of a handful of people who tuned into the meeting remotely.
The survey was more designed to be a pulse check than as a poll that met scientific sampling standards and could be representative of the entire population. It had a mechanism to prevent people from taking it repeatedly, but it only blocked Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, meaning people could still participate multiple times, skewing results.
For respondents who wanted the highways to be renamed, many people proposed using Route 29 and Route 50, which are already used on maps.
Sully District committee member Marvin Powell said society renames things all the time and the county needs to think of the citizens of today and tomorrow.
The committee also discussed how families’ properties were taken by eminent domain for the roads in question. Sheppard said his family was affected and joked one road could have originally been named after his family.
The Board of Supervisors appointed the task force in July after the Fairfax County History Commission compiled an inventory of streets, monuments, and public places with names tied to the Confederacy. It found “approximately 157 assets, including parks, within the County that bear confirmed Confederate associated names,” the December 2020 report said.
Michael Champness, an at-large member of the Confederate Names Task Force, said before the votes that changing the two highway names sends an important message, but the county doesn’t necessarily need to rename all of those landmarks.
“We might be in a good position to maybe call a truce after this,” he said, before voting “yes” on each motion. “I think it’s very important to change these names because it’s important to be heard. It’s important for action to take place…but I don’t think we need to try and change every street name.”
The task force is scheduled to vote on Dec. 13 on alternative names to recommend to the Board of Supervisors, which could schedule a public hearing and act on the recommendations in early 2022.
Though they have cropped up with increasing regularity both locally and nationally in recent years, conversations about how to handle symbolic reminders of the Confederacy remain as emotionally charged as ever.
That was evident in the most recent meeting of Fairfax County’s Confederate Names Task Force, which has been charged with determining whether the county should rename Lee and Lee-Jackson Memorial highways.
“We have a nice taste of different people from different parts of Fairfax that want to weigh in,” task force chair Evelyn Spain said. “We value all of their opinions on whether this end result comes to change the name or not change the name of Fairfax streets.”
The two-hour meeting at the Fairfax County Government Center on Monday (Oct. 18) followed the launch of a community survey last week. Postcards advertising the survey are expected to roll out to residents across the county starting this weekend.
Also accepting public comments by email, phone, mail, and at four upcoming listening sessions, the task force will use the input to inform its recommendation to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.
“I don’t want people to be back here in 30 years because we made a wrong decision,” one member said.
The Financial Cost of Changing the Names
Changing the names of both highways could cost Fairfax County anywhere from $1 million to $4 million, Fairfax County Department of Transportation Director Tom Biesiadny told the task force.
According to FCDOT, there are 171 Lee Highway signs along the county’s 14.1-mile stretch of Route 29 and 55 Lee-Jackson Memorial Highway signs on 8.4 miles of Route 50.
The cost varies depending on each kind of sign, particularly ones on traffic light mast arms or other overhead structures. If a new street name is longer than the existing one, replacing the signs will require more work due to the added weight, Biesiadny explained.
“What we’re going to replace it with does matter,” he said.
Biesiadny also reported that, based on estimates from neighboring localities that have adopted new highway names, a name change would cost businesses about $500 each to update their address on signs, stationary, and legal documents, among other possible expenses.
Other jurisdictions are looking at providing grants to cover businesses’ costs, according to Biesiadny, who noted that the county would need to conduct a survey of businesses to get a more precise estimate.
What’s in a (Street) Name?
For the task force, however, the question of whether to rename the highways hinges less on money than on what the names say about a community’s values and identity.