Shameful History of Jeff Davis Highway

Journalist Robert Parry has become embroiled in a local controversy in Arlington, Virginia, over his suggestion that the name of Confederate President Jefferson Davis be removed from roads in the county in recognition of the evils of slavery and segregation, an idea that has riled up some longtime Virginians.

By Robert Parry

My proposal to strip the name of arch-racist Jefferson Davis off roadways in Arlington County has prompted attacks against me in the local newspaper (the Sun-Gazette) for allegedly seeking to deny history, but nothing could be further from the truth. My point was to encourage a clearer understanding of the actual history, the harsh reality that was African-American slavery, not the hazy romanticism that has surrounded some of the fond white memories of the ante bellum South.

My letter to the County Board, which sparked this controversy, suggested that the County make a greater effort to honor the site of Freedman’s Village, a camp established in South Arlington in 1863 as a refuge for African-Americans as they fled north to escape the horrors of slavery. Though life in Freedman’s Village was hard – and it was phased out by the end of the Nineteenth Century – the camp offered a beacon of liberty and hope to hundreds of these Americans who had been subjected to one of the great crimes of history.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Rather than honor Jefferson Davis, who was hailed as the “champion of a slave society” when he was chosen to lead the Confederacy in 1861, it seemed to me far more appropriate to name these Arlington roads in honor of Freedman’s Village (or for other historic events in Arlington, possibly the “Pentagon 9/11 Memorial Highway”). Besides the inconvenient truth that Jefferson Davis was a white supremacist and a slaveholder, the man had no connection to Arlington County. He was born in Kentucky and owned a plantation in Mississippi.

Plus, there’s the troubling reason why his name was attached to some southern sections of Route 1 in the 1920s. It was because the Daughters of the Confederacy were outraged that there were plans for a Lincoln Highway in the North (honoring Abraham Lincoln). At the height of the Jim Crow era, when whites in the South were enforcing racial segregation by lynching blacks, these apologists for white supremacy were making a political statement by attaching the name of the Confederate president to these roads, including those in Arlington County that passed near predominately black neighborhoods.

Then, in 1964, as Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement succeeded in gaining passage of a landmark civil rights law, the Virginia legislature added Jefferson Davis’s name to a section of Route 110 that passes by the Pentagon. In other words, during the last century, the naming of these roads after Jefferson Davis represented a protest by white supremacists who were expressing their resentments over the end of slavery and the demise of segregation.

Thus, to leave Jefferson Davis’s name on these roads is an affront to African-Americans and, indeed, all Americans who are ashamed of this vile part of our history. Making people honor Jefferson Davis by having to say his name as part of addresses along these roadways is not much different from making people wave the Confederate battle flag; both are symbols of racial oppression.

As we have seen around the world, people frequently pull down the statues of dictators or remove their names from cities and public facilities. For instance, Stalingrad was renamed Volgograd after Josef Stalin’s crimes were exposed; Saddam Hussein’s statue was toppled in Baghdad in 2003 with the help of U.S. soldiers. These and countless similar actions were not a repudiation of history; they were a recognition of history. They were attempts to remove misplaced honors for people who had inflicted evil on innocent people.

Slavery in the United States and the Western Hemisphere was just such an evil, arguably one of the greatest crimes of human history. Over several centuries, more than 12 million people were stolen from their homes in Africa; many died in the passage across the Atlantic; the survivors were sold like animals and forced to work under brutal conditions; both adults and children were whipped to terrorize them into working harder; runaways or troublemakers were lynched; countless women were raped; children were sold from their parents. It was barbaric.

Jefferson Davis was not just a practitioner of slavery; he was a political leader who sought to perpetuate the slavery of African-Americans forever. To those people who are not outraged that Arlington County continues to honor such a person and what he stood for – indeed people who are outraged that I am outraged – my only question to them is: Do you not believe that slavery and segregation were wrong?

In one of the letters protesting my proposal, the writer declared, “I am very proud of my Commonwealth’s history, but not of the current times, as I’m sure many others are.” So, what about this “history” is my critic “very proud of” and what about “current times” is so objectionable?

In my 37 years living in Virginia, I have always been struck by the curious victimhood of many Southern whites. Because of the Civil War, which some still call “the War of Northern Aggression,” and the Civil Rights Movement, which finally ended segregation, they have been nursing grievances, seeing themselves as the real victims here. Not the African-Americans who were held in the unspeakable conditions of bondage until slavery was finally ended in the 1860s and who then suffered the cruelties of segregation for another century. No, the whites who lorded over them were the real “victims.”

I have a German friend who praises the U.S. Army for helping to liberate Germany from the Nazis despite the devastation that was inflicted on his country. Like my friend, modern Germans have accepted their collective national responsibility for the rise of Adolf Hitler and for the Holocaust. Similarly, whites in the American South need to rethink their grievances toward the Union Army, which liberated not only African-Americans but the entire region from the evils of slavery, a vile economic and cultural system that Jefferson Davis and the Confederates fought a war to protect.

Changing the name of Jefferson Davis Highway would be one small step toward finally confronting the real history, that shameful chapter of our American history.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

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5 comments on “Shameful History of Jeff Davis Highway

  1. When the Iranians held hostages, Jimmy Carter was puzzled to learn that it was due in part to the history of the US ousting of the democratically elected Mosedegh (sp). Said Carter, “That was years ago.” I thought it ironic that Carter, a Southerner, overlooked that much of the South was still nursing wounds over the Civil War a century earlier.

  2. When President (Jefferson) Davis died in 1889, many former slaves attended his funeral and marched in the procession. Others sent Mrs. Davis the following telegram: “We, the old servants and tenants of our beloved master, Honorable Jefferson Davis, have cause to mingle our tears over his death, who was always so kind and thoughtful of our peace and happiness. We extend to our humble sympathy”

  3. I am amazed that Robert Parry is so concerned about naming a highway after Jefferson Davis when he has yet to report on the Jefferson Davis Camp No. 305 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans which financed the lawsuit that closed the century-old Confederate Memorial Hall museum and library in Washington.

    The lawsuit was financed by white supremacists who had engaged lawyer Herbert Harmon. Harmon and his wife were officers in a firm called Wrightmon USA, who were paid $15,000 per month by the white supremacist government of South Africa.

  4. President Carter give him back his citizenship on October 17, 1978. President Reagan gave Martin Luther King Jr. a national holiday. Granted overall I like Carter’s foreign and domestic policy better but this is another example of how the Republicans(more often than not)have trumped the democrats on Civil Rights throughout the past 150 years.

  5. historicvs on said:

    When Jeff Davis was a US Senator he used his free franking privilege to mail letters to his fellow conspirators against the federal government without having to pay for the stamp. It is often forgotten that the slaveholder aristocrats initially planned to seize Washington in 1860 but resorted to secession when they realized their coup would immediately fail. This despite the fact that they still controlled Congress and the Supreme Court, as they had since 1789. They must have been furious that keeping Lincoln’s name off the ballot in nine of the future “confederate” states failed to sabotage the election that they themselves lost by sabotaging the Democratic convention. Oh, but they were men who loved freedom and democracy, and never, ever told a lie.