Lynching and Jeff Davis Highway

Exclusive: Many parts of the South, including Arlington, Virginia, just outside the U.S. capital, still honor Confederate President Jefferson Davis by attaching his name to important roadways. But a recent study on lynching puts the motive for honoring that white supremacist in a sickening new light, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

A new study of Southern lynching of blacks, sharply raising the total to nearly 4,000 victims, adds some context to the decision in 1920 to attach the name of Confederate President Jefferson Davis to parts of Route One, including stretches near and through African-American neighborhoods. That period was a time when the number of lynchings surged across the South and whites were reasserting their impunity.

According to the study by the Equal Justice Initiative, the use of lynching mob killings and mutilations of blacks by hanging, burning alive, castration, torture and other means was nearly as high around 1920 as it was in the latter part of the Nineteenth Century. There was a gradual decline in lynchings in the early Twentieth Century, but the pattern reversed and the use of lynching surged to about 500 during a five-year period heading into 1920.

A Civil War-era African-American soldier and his family. (Photo credit: Encyclopedia Virginia)

A Civil War-era African-American soldier and his family. (Photo credit: Encyclopedia Virginia)

That period also marked a determination by many Southern whites to reaffirm the rightness of the Confederate cause and to reassert white supremacy. Thus, in 1920, to drive home the point of who was in charge, the Daughters of the Confederacy had Southern states name portions of Route One after Jefferson Davis, who was hailed as the “champion of a slave society” when he was chosen to lead the Confederacy in 1861.

Besides honoring a dyed-in-the-wool white supremacist who favored keeping African-Americans in chains forever, the Daughters of the Confederacy saw these designations of Route One as a counterpoint to plans in the North for a Lincoln Highway in honor of assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.

But bestowing this honor on Jefferson Davis was also a political message of pro-Confederate defiance that was not limited to the brutal era of 1920. The Jefferson Davis designation was extended to parts of Route 110 near the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, in 1964 as Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement were pressing for landmark civil rights legislation to end segregation and as white Virginian politicians were vowing to resist integration at all costs.

A year or so ago, I wrote to the five members of the Arlington County Board and urged them to seek an end to this grotesque honor bestowed on a notorious white racist. When my letter went public, it was treated with some amusement by the local paper, the Sun-Gazette, which described me as “rankled,” and prompted some hate mail.

One letter from an Arlington resident declared that it was now her turn to be “RANKLED by outsiders like Mr. Parry who want to change history because it is not to his liking. I am very proud of my Commonwealth’s history, but not of the current times, as I’m sure many others are.”

I was also confronted by a senior Democratic county official at a meeting about a different topic and urged to desist in my proposal to give the highway a new name because the idea would alienate state politicians in Richmond who would think that Arlington County was crazy.

But the new study on the terrorism of lynching reminds us that attaching Jefferson Davis’s name to roadways wasn’t just some romantic gesture to honor an historical figure beloved by Southern whites who in 1920 still pined for the ante-bellum days when they could own black people and do to them whatever they wished.

The years around 1920 marked a violent revival of the carnival-like scenes in which whites treated the lynching of blacks as a moment for community hilarity and celebration, often posing with their children for photographs next to the mutilated corpses. Stamping Jefferson Davis’s name on a highway that passed near and through black neighborhoods was another way to send a chilling message to African-Americans.

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 white terrorism and the humiliation of segregation for another century. No, the whites who lorded over them were the real “victims” because the federal government finally intervened to stop these practices.

Yet, while some white Virginians remain “very proud” of that history, there has been a studied neglect of other more honorable aspects of Arlington’s history, including the role played by Columbia Pike as an African-American Freedom Trail where thousands of former slaves, freed by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, traveled north to escape slavery.

Many were given refuge in Freedman’s Village, a semi-permanent refugee camp along Columbia Pike on land that now includes the Pentagon and the Air Force Memorial. Some of the men joined the U.S. Colored Troops training at nearby Camp Casey before returning to the South to fight for freedom, to end the scourge of slavery once and for all.

As blacks joined the Union Army, Confederate President Jefferson Davis ratified a policy that refused to treat black men as soldiers but rather as slaves in a state of insurrection, so they could be executed upon capture or sold into slavery.

In accordance with this Confederate policy, U.S. Colored Troops faced summary executions when captured in battle. For instance, when a Union garrison at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, was overrun by Confederate forces on April 12, 1864, black soldiers were shot down as they surrendered. Similar atrocities occurred at the Battle of Poison Springs, Arkansas, in April 1864, and the Battle of the Crater in Virginia. Scores of black prisoners were executed in Saltville, Virginia, on Oct. 2, 1864.

Yet, while Jefferson Davis’s name remains on roadways through Arlington — and as the Confederate president is effectively honored whenever people have to use his name — there is still no commemoration of Freedman’s Village (though something is supposedly being planned) and no one apparently even knows the precise location of Camp Casey, arguably one of Arlington’s most significant and noble historical sites. (Camp Casey is believed to have been located close to where today’s Pentagon now is, an area that in the 1860s was called Alexandria County before being renamed Arlington County in the Twentieth Century.)

Apparently, recognizing the place where free African-Americans were trained and armed to defeat the Confederacy and end slavery might “rankle” some white Arlington residents.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). 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.

17 comments for “Lynching and Jeff Davis Highway

  1. Alan L. Maki
    February 23, 2015 at 16:00

    I lived in Virginia for several years and was always amazed how, when visiting historical sites and battlefields of the Civil War era, how things were stated by tour guides.

    Things like, “Our boys put up a good fight.” When I asked, “Which boys put up a good fight?,” I would receive dirty looks and told, “Confederate soldiers.”

    When I would ask, “Who won the war?” no one wanted to comment.

    Even worse than the monuments erected to the Confederacy and its leaders, were the deplorable present day working conditions and poverty wages I experienced.

    In one sweatshop in Virginia Beach, working conditions were so deplorable and harsh, one elderly Black woman told the plant manager, “Why don’t you just bring back the chains?”

    Just recently I visited the Lyndon B. Johnson exhibits in Texas and one exhibit about Civil Rights noted that Texas has more KKK chapters than any other state and Texas is often held up as an example of “the new South.”

    I also learned that it is in Texas where what is published in school text books becomes the standard for the entire country and a bunch of right-wing racist bigots dominate the Texas text book commission. So, it is no wonder people have become so ignorant about the Civil War and who the real heroes of this period were.

    More people visit the Alamo where, when the truth is told, died for the defense of slavery, than who visit the Lyndon B. Johnson ranch, the Texas White House where one learns the evils of racism and how Johnson ended up supporting George McGovern— another little fact the textbooks omit.

    While those like slavery defender Jefferson Davis are given prominence and honored, others like W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson are being written out of history and text books and it is workers paying the ultimate price as Wall Street corporations use racism to try to squeeze more and more production (profits) out of workers using many of the same methods as the slave owners along with the same sick racist ideas modified to better fit “the new South” and its corporations which have replaced the slave plantations for generating tremendous wealth.

    It isn’t just the naming of streets and highways in honor of these defenders of human barbarity that is repugnant and indecent— it is the way our society is being built on their very ideas with profits of the wealthy still not being explained in order to put an end to human misery the product of a sick system of exploitation held in place— largely by racism in all of its ugly forms— social, institutional and historic.

    But doesn’t a sick society and economic system need to elevate those like Jefferson Davis and all the evils he stood for in order to continue its own evil existence?

  2. hammersmith
    February 15, 2015 at 20:43

    Still fighting the Civil War Bob? Considering what the USA has become, a war criminal state, hard to imagine your criticizing any people in any time.

  3. hammersmith
    February 15, 2015 at 20:41

    Still fighting the Civil War Bob? Amusing: if you look at what the USA has become, one would wonder how you gather the nerve to launch these moralistic attacks.

  4. Elise Murray
    February 15, 2015 at 20:02

    Fairfax County, VA, changed the name of Rt. 1 from Jefferson Davis Highway to Richmond Highway. I am not sure when, superficial research indicates that its was sometime after 1965. I am surprised by the response in usually liberal Arlington County.

  5. Zachary Smith
    February 12, 2015 at 15:40

    (third attempt at posting this – hope the others don’t eventually show up as well)

    Lynching and Jeff Davis Highway

    Mr. Parry makes a good start, but I fear he drastically understates the problem. The “culture” in the Old South ranked among the most evil in human history. The heirs of that period haven’t learned anything at all except to continue with the arrogance of the era.

    Naming a highway after Jefferson Davis. It’s a deliberate and calculated insult to decency. When I’m driving north on I-75 (somewhere near the Florida state line) I pass a filling station with the largest flag I’ve ever seen. That enormous Confederate battle flag is giving the middle finger to everybody on the interstate. The US and the world were very fortunate that the traitors Jeff Davis and Bob Lee were not very good at what they did. Yes, General Lee was a tactical genius, but had he not also been a strategic moron the world would have become a much worse place than it actually did.

    There is not only anger that the North did not recognize the need to compensate direct and consequent damages to slaveholders…

    It’s amazing that in 2015 this nonsense is still to be found. The South did not want compensation. No, it demanded total subservience to the loopy system it had constructed, for negro slavery was the will of God!

    Why Non-Slaveholding Southerners Fought
    http://www.civilwar.org/education/history/civil-war-overview/why-non-slaveholding.html

    I’ve been tracking down and verifying the information the author presented. So far he’s been spot-on. From a South Carolina lawyer:

    Mississippi would “rather see the last of her race, men, women, and children, immolated in one common funeral pyre than see them subjugated to the degradation of civil, political and social equality with the negro race.”

    http://tinyurl.com/mcgu47r

    An 1860 preacher in New Orleans:

    We, too, have our responsibilities and trials; but they are all bound up in this one institution, which has been the object of such unrighteous assault through five and twenty years. If we are true to ourselves we shall, at this critical juncture, stand by it and work out our destiny.

    This duty is bound upon us again as the constituted guardians of the slaves themselves. Our lot is not more implicated in theirs, than their lot in ours; in our mutual relations we survive or perish together.

    Rev. Palmer’s rant described the abolitionists as atheistic monsters – defying God’s directives that negro slavery was a positive good.

    http://civilwarcauses.org/palmer.htm

    Finishing with the first link:

    Reverend Furman of South Carolina insisted that the right to hold slaves was clearly sanctioned by the Holy Scriptures. He emphasized a practical side as well, warning that if Lincoln were elected, “every Negro in South Carolina and every other Southern state will be his own master; nay, more than that, will be the equal of every one of you. If you are tame enough to submit, abolition preachers will be at hand to consummate the marriage of your daughters to black husbands.”

    The prospect of a young white woman loving and marrying a Negro was too horrible to contemplate, yet the absolute right of white masters to rape the daughters and wives of negro slaves was not to be questioned.

    I’ve found an amazing letter dating to 1911. It was written by a Confederate veteran, and shows the delusional ‘reality’ the southerners had already constructed by then. Sample:

    It is a deplorable fact that after more than forty years of civil liberty by the Africans in America so many of them are untrustworthy. In former days the planter without fear intrusted his wife and daughters to “Uncle Tom” and his sable sons. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was a fort of protection for the family. Mr. Tom’s sons are terrors to the AngloSaxon woman. She once could visit her neighbors without fear; but not now. The Southern people are censured because of mobs. Mobs should be discouraged in all righteousness everywhere. The mobocrats do not all reside in the South; and it is Safe to say that mobbing will usually follow the “nameless crime.”

    http://tinyurl.com/n62ba5t

    Notice that righteous bit about the North lynching and murdering too

    Enough! I’m writing a blog post, not a book. How Negro slavery ended white slavery and led to the “melting pot”, why Black US soldiers wouldn’t fight in WW2, and why black students in the South do so poorly in school, the easy American acceptance of torture’s return; for those and many other connections there is no space.

    • John
      February 12, 2015 at 18:34

      The fact that slavery is wrong does not eliminate “the need to compensate direct and consequent damages to slaveholders per Amendment V.” Any negotiation must consider the alternatives of the other side. The Constitution certainly does require that, not because slave owners should be paid to justice, but because it was previously lawful, so Southerners made commitments that they could not easily change. Now of course, no one could afford to do that: ending slavery with no transition plan or subsidy would have ruined the South. So if the southern-controlled Supreme Court had simply stated in the Dred Scott decision that he was now free, but the liberating state must pay all consequent damages, that would have been legally correct and fair. But it would have been expensive, so the North would have been forced to consider a cotton tax to subsidize wage labor on plantation. But the South missed the chance.

      When we simply get angry about the underlying issue of justice, without a practical plan to eliminate the problem, we get war instead of practical progress.

    • Zachary Smith
      February 12, 2015 at 23:42

      The fact that slavery is wrong does not eliminate “the need to compensate direct and consequent damages to slaveholders per Amendment V.”

      Well sir, I’ve looked at every Civil War history book in my small library, and also checked online with all the keyword searches I can devise. Result: I’ve been quite unable to locate reports of the southern slave-owner class being willing to engage in Compensated Emancipation. Rather the contrary: the idea supposedly met with universal ridicule from the South.

      So would you kindly share with me your knowledge of the pre-war instances when the Slave South offered to allow its slaves to become free US citizens and to accept taxpayer money in compensation for doing so. I emphasize “pre-war”, for after they pulled their 1961 “Pearl Harbor” attack on Fort Sumter that possibility disappeared.

    • Zachary Smith
      February 12, 2015 at 23:44

      1861

      Why can’t we have a 5 minute “edit” window?

    • John
      February 13, 2015 at 07:33

      I agree; I too have found no very deep consideration of the issues of secession or emancipation on either side. As you note, much of the South was as irrationally defensive of slavery as the North was blindly offensive. But I consider the war to be a mistake almost as terrible as the slavery, so I have considered solutions.

      The question for me is why diplomacy was so poor? I attribute the lack of debate to the regional demagogues on both sides, spewing fiery rhetoric to command elections, without concern for the consequences. The rise of regional demagogues parallels the aging of the founders, and their generation’s view of regional reconciliation in the interest of nationhood. That tolerance was result not the of threats against secession, but of tolerance of variation, and negotiation. Admittedly, the three-fifths compromise (federal representation of slaves) was hardly a deep reconciliation, but the intent was clearly compromise to make things work. But in 1820-1860 the compromises became ever less agreeable without consideration of what now seem fairly simple expedients. Perhaps forward-looking regional diplomacy is too much to expect, as in Ukraine, or perhaps democracy engenders right wing tyrants, who as described by Aristotle, invent foreign monsters to demand domestic power and silence critics?

      Sorry to be verbose.

  6. Gregory Kruse
    February 12, 2015 at 14:07

    Not to mention Robert E. Lee, who was nothing more than a traitor to his nation. Many try to justify him by saying that he was loyal to the State of Virginia, but I think it more likely that he defected to the South because he was a white supremacist.

    • ron
      February 13, 2015 at 23:12

      That is the most ignorant statement about Lee I have ever read.I am no racist myself but I am a history scholar.Lee actually freed slaves that he inherited because he felt owning them was morally wrong.his motivations for his choice of loyalty took place in a context that is obviously not on your radar.grant on the other hand married a woman who owned slaves and didn’t see a thing wrong with it.read a book not an article

  7. Joe Tedesky
    February 12, 2015 at 11:37

    Mr Parry, if you posted an on line petition, you would have my vote. My grand children don’t need to pay honor to such people as Jefferson Davis. Owning people is not what the U.S. should be about.

  8. Peter Loeb
    February 12, 2015 at 08:18

    NOT ONLY SOUTHERN TREES BORE THIS FRUIT

    Although it may be argued thast lynching was primarily or most enthusiastically
    southern as in the song “Strange Fruit”, a magnificent signature song sung
    by Billie Holliday (but not with text written for her as she so often and harmlessly
    claimed as the lights dimmed). Lynching was also prevalent in the North.
    See the excellent book by Philip Dray, “AT THE HANDS OF PERSONS UNKNOWN:
    THE LYNCHING OF BLACK AMERICA” (Random House, The Modern Library, 2002).

  9. John
    February 12, 2015 at 08:01

    This appears to be caused by early identification with geographic location and historic identification. I recently spoke with Virginia professionals of the relative simplicity of avoiding the Civil War (taxing slave product to subsidize free labor and transitional support), blaming the regional demagogues on both sides equally, and met outrage. There is not only anger that the North did not recognize the need to compensate direct and consequent damages to slaveholders per Amendment V, which would have made North/South negotiations rational, but anger that slavery is held against them as a moral wrong that cannot be expunged, rather than what their ancestors considered a practical necessity.

    • Jay
      February 12, 2015 at 13:31

      That’s an odd use of “practical necessity”, in other words a fake excuse for the mass abuse of other people.

      Thereby entirely undermining those who defend the south’s insistence that the enslavement of blacks was some how necessary and right.

    • John
      February 12, 2015 at 18:19

      Yes, it is an excuse from our perspective. But it was not practical for any plantation owner to unilaterally employ wage labor because the market price would be the same. And it was incorrectly believed by some that plantations with wage labor would not work, having been tried unsuccessfully by northerners in the south.

      So the solution was to force up the cotton price to permit wage labor. This was quite feasible because the centers of abolitionism were also the cotton consuming centers: the northern states and England, so they would pay the price. But this had to be done by government, not unilaterally, and it requires a large administration to track slave cotton and assess taxes, or else prohibit slavery all at once with construction of towns etc. for freed slaves. Apparently no one even considered such modern means, it was simply unthinkable.; there is no mention in Emerson, Calhoun, Lincoln, or earlier thinkers. No practical means to eliminate slavery, either gradually or at once, was offered to the South. In that sense it remained a practical necessity however wrongful.

    • Christian Rewoldt
      February 15, 2015 at 02:25

      Here’s a practical means-I put you into servitude, split you from your family, and beat you if you don’t like it-out of economic neccessitty.

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