Push to rename Confederate streets for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor

Alex Sprague has started a petition to rename Confederate streets

Teo Armus
Monday 18 October 2021 18:01
<p>South Floyd Street is named after a brigadier general in the Confederate Army </p>

South Floyd Street is named after a brigadier general in the Confederate Army

It was at the townhouse with the black welcome mat - a skinny beige building on South Floyd Street - where Alex Sprague managed to collect Signature No. 4.

“I’m starting a petition to get this street renamed. Is that something that interests you?” the 25-year-old asked upon ringing the doorbell, clipboard in hand.

The man standing inside, barefoot and in sweatpants, was halfway through shutting the door before curiosity got the best of him. “What are you renaming it to?” he asked. “And why?”

Like many of his neighbours, the man had given little thought to the namesake for this quiet, four-block strip in Alexandria’s Seminary Hill neighbourhood: former Virginia governor John Buchanan Floyd, a brigadier general in the Confederate Army.

But as Mr Sprague explained, Mr Floyd is not the only Confederate whose name appears on nearby addresses. At least 40 other streets in this Northern Virginia city also honour Confederate leaders, largely thanks to a city ordinance that at one point required it for all new roadways running north to south.

Following last year’s summer of demonstrations for racial justice, Alexandria officials drastically lowered the bar in August to shed some Confederate names from the map. A petition signed by 25 per cent of property owners along a given street, down from 75 per cent, is now required to raise the question before city lawmakers.

So Mr Sprague has made it a personal mission to knock on door after door, hoping to replace the generals’ names with those of figures on the other side of history: Janneys Lane would now be named after Elijah Cummings, the civil rights figure and Maryland congressman who died two years ago. Van Dorn Street would now honour Breonna Taylor, the Black woman fatally shot by Louisville police in her apartment.

And Floyd Street would be renamed in honour of George Floyd, whose killing forced many local governments - including Alexandria’s - to further confront their own role in perpetuating racial injustice.

“You should’ve led with that,” the man at the door told Sprague.

As one of the oldest cities in the country, Alexandria boasts no shortage of Civil War iconography. Lee Street, in the city’s historic Old Town, bears the name of the military family that lived in the neighbourhood, including a young Robert Lee.

Most of the city’s Confederate streets, however, did not exist until midway through last century. In 1951, Alexandria planning officials - “impassioned with the glory of the Civil War,” as one local newspaper article put it - wrote it into city code that all new north-south streets should be named after Confederate military officials.

“The naming wasn’t done naturally,” City Council member John Chapman, a Democrat, said in an interview last week. “It was done as a way to keep the Lost Cause alive. ... They said, ‘We are going to make sure our Confederate soldiers are preserved even if they never even stepped foot in Alexandria.’”

That ordinance was largely ignored starting in the 1960s, before city lawmakers formally repealed it in 2014. But the street names remained.

It wasn’t until after the protests last summer that local officials decided to again take a look at a tabled proposal to amend the city’s renaming policies, said Tony LaColla, Alexandria’s chief city planner.

By then, the city and its neighbours had already begun to reckon with the Confederate grip on many of their most prominent thoroughfares. Alexandria, and then Virginia state legislators, pushed to rename Jefferson Davis Highway.

In 2015, the city ended its practice of occasionally hanging three Confederate flags from traffic-light poles near “Appomattox,” a statue of a Confederate soldier. Six years later - a week after Mr Floyd’s killing - that statue was taken down.

Mr Chapman, who serves on the city facilities naming committee, said the matter of renaming gets more complicated when dealing with shorter streets and residential neighbourhoods. Landlords and business owners may be reluctant to fork over large sums of money to change deeds and addresses.

That’s why the city is merely testing the waters, he noted, with a pilot program that - for only the first three petitions - will lower the threshold of support needed.

“You pick a number that doesn’t presuppose an outcome,” Mr Chapman said. “If you have 25 per cent (of property owners), that means you’ve just opened the door to have an additional conversation.”

The lower percentage goes into effect automatically for 41 streets confirmed to have Confederate namesakes. If petitioners can prove a different name has Confederate origins - 27 others streets are being examined - the bar will also lower for those streets, from 75 per cent to 25 per cent.

Then the request goes to the naming committee, and then the City Council. But Alexandria officials will not lead the charge themselves.

“The city,” Mr LaColla said, “is not in the business of changing street names. We’re letting it be a citizen-led initiative.”

Much of the initiative has come from Sprague and a tiny group of activists, Reconstruction Alexandria. Animated by citywide conversations over the summer, they have set their sights on stripping every Confederate namesake from the map.

“I don’t think streets should be honouring folks who tried to undermine our democracy. Streets should honour people who tried to speak up,” Mr Sprague said. “And I feel like if I don’t do it, who will?”

So far, it has been a rather lonely battle.

Residents on Janneys Lane have laughed or raised their voices, the activists said, telling them they have their history wrong. On Columbus Street in Old Town - which the group is also targeting - Mr Sprague recalls being chased down the block while trying to garner signatures to replace the navigator’s name with that of Anthony Fauci.

On Floyd Street earlier this week, Mr Sprague seemed to face far less hostility.

Russell Miller, who lives in a brick house on the corner, had never made the connection to Gen. Floyd. But the decision to sign was easy.

If the general “represented four years of treason and oppression,” said Mr Miller, a transgender man, “George Floyd represents the struggles of all of us minorities that are killed and abused and underrepresented.”

But short of the necessary signatures, on Floyd Street or in any other part of the city, the group has their work cut out for them.

The biggest challenge will probably be on Lee Street in Old Town, where a number of residents have clashed on how that block was named - Was it after the Confederate general or his mother? Does it matter? - and whether the name should change.

Although Reconstruction Alexandria is pushing to call it Wanishi Street, after a Piscataway word meaning “thank you,” some of the street’s residents are considering other proposals.

Yvonne Weight Callahan, who lives on Lee, said that any push to rename a street - Lee, Floyd or otherwise - needs to account for when the name was chosen and what the original namesake is best remembered for. A memorial for dead soldiers right after the Civil War, she said, should be considered differently than a Confederate name chosen during the Massive Resistance movement of the 1950s.

“If this Floyd Street was named during the ‘50s, of course you would stop and think about why,” she said. “But now that we’ve had the benefit of 70 years since, then the dialogue needs to be on which episodes of this person’s life we should be considering. ... Are we erasing history by erasing his name on a street? I think so, maybe.”

Her next-door neighbour Kate Cinelli, a 40-year-old professional violist, said the historical context around the Civil War was being misunderstood in the debate. And she lamented that “a bunch of white people,” rather than the descendants of enslaved people, were the ones engaging in this discussion.

“Streets should not be named after people who fought to keep slavery,” she said. “Why is this complicated?”

The Washington Post

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