Fairfax County, Virginia is a stone’s throw from Washington, DC. The county is home to over 25,000 federal government employees and the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency. One hundred sixty years ago, the county was an important battlefield in a war where secessionist traitors fought the federal government to preserve the practice of owning other human beings. Yesterday, the Fairfax County Board voted to rename its federal highways that are currently named after the Confederacy’s two most well-known generals.
According to the Washington Post, the Fairfax County Board voted 9 to 1 to rename Lee-Jackson Memorial Highway and Lee Highway. The vote fell along party lines, where the nine Democratic board supervisors were for the name change, and the sole Republican supervisor was against it. The roadways named for Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson will now be simply known by their federal route numbers. Lee-Jackson Memorial Highway will become U.S. Route 50, and Lee Highway will be referred to as U.S. Route 29.
Obviously, the Civil War predates the concept of a federal highway system by an extraordinary amount of time. The highways were named after Lee and Jackson in 1919 and 1921, roughly 55 years after the surrender at Appomattox Court House. The roadways received their names in the wake of the 1915 release of the wildly popular film The Birth of a Nation, the resulting surge in white nationalism and refounding of the Ku Klux Klan.
A contemporary comparison would be if states in 2022 started naming roads and streets after Alabama Governor George Wallace and other 1960s segregationists. The now-defunct highway names won’t fall out of informal use immediately, but over time the monikers originally intended to provoke racial hatred will fade from public consciousness into the dustbin of history.