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.
For anyone who feels strongly about whether or not Lee Highway and Lee-Jackson Memorial Highway should continue to bear those names, the time to share that opinion has arrived.
The Fairfax County Confederate Names Task Force launched a survey yesterday (Thursday), kicking off the community engagement phase of its review of whether to rename the highways.
Open until Nov. 12, the survey is available in English, Spanish, Arabic, Farsi, Korean, and Vietnamese. Chinese and Urdu versions will be coming soon, and print copies will be available at county libraries and district supervisor offices starting next Wednesday (Oct. 20), according to the task force’s website.
According to the news release, the task force will send out a countywide mailer to all residents later this month encouraging them to weigh in on the issue, and four public meetings — three in person, one virtual — have been scheduled through early November:
- Thursday, Oct. 28: Providence Community Center, 3001 Vaden Drive, Fairfax, 7-8:30 p.m.
- Saturday, Oct. 30: Fairfax County Government Center, 12000 Government Center Parkway, 10-11:30 a.m.
- Monday, Nov. 1: via WebEx, 7-8:30 p.m.
- Thursday, Nov. 4: Sully District Governmental Center, 4900 Stonecroft Boulevard, Chantilly, 7-8:30 p.m.
Comments can also be sent to the task force by email, phone (703-877-5600), and regular mail (Fairfax County Department of Transportation, 4050 Legato Road, Suite 400, Fairfax, VA 22033).
“Symbols matter and we want our community to feel welcome and reflect our values,” Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said. “Community feedback is a key part of the renaming of Lee and Lee Jackson Memorial Highways process and will determine our next steps forward. There are multiple ways to offer feedback including a survey and community listening sessions. I encourage everyone who can to join the discussion.”
The Board of Supervisors appointed the 30-member task force in July after getting a report from the county’s history commission that identified more than 26,000 streets and other local landmarks bearing names associated with the Confederacy.
The Fairfax County History Commission narrowed its inventory down to 150 sites named after well-known Confederate figures, with Lee and Lee-Jackson highways among the most prominent.
The county’s portion of Route 29 spans 14.11 miles from Centreville to Falls Church and was named after Confederate general Robert E. Lee in 1919, according to the task force. Lee and fellow general Stonewall Jackson became the namesakes for the 8.43-mile stretch of Route 50 from Loudoun County to the City of Fairfax in 1922.
While those monikers have stuck for around a century now, nationwide efforts to remove names linked to the Confederacy or slavery from public places have gained momentum in recent years. Fairfax County Public Schools alone has renamed three buildings in the past four years.
Neighboring Arlington County renamed its section of Route 29 this past summer, replacing Lee’s name with that of abolitionist John M. Langston, Virginia’s first Congressional representative of color.
Expected to present a recommendation on whether to rename the roadways to the Board of Supervisors in December, the Confederate Names Task Force has been meeting on a regular basis since Aug. 16. The agenda for its upcoming meeting on Monday (Oct. 18) includes a staff briefing on the cost implications of a name change and a discussion of criteria for street names.
If the task force recommends changing the names, it will then offer up to five possible new names for each road, and after holding a public hearing, the Board of Supervisors will vote on the recommendation, potentially early next year. The name changes would then have to get state approval and go through the county budget process to cover the costs.