Passed Virginia legislation allows Arlington County to rename Lee Highway, but it’s unlikely to be “Loving Avenue.”
Yesterday (Feb. 23), HB 1854 passed the Virginia State Senate after passing through the House of Delegates late last month. The bill now goes to Governor Ralph Northam for his signature, which will officially codify it.
The bill specifically authorizes the Arlington County Board to name the section of U.S. Route 29, known for decades as “Lee Highway,” located within its boundaries.
However, it’s unlikely to be renamed Loving Avenue in honor of the Virginia couple whose fight to get married went to the U.S. Supreme Court despite the recommendation of the Lee Highway Alliance work group in December..
This is due to the family’s objection, says Arlington County Board Vice Chair Katie Cristol. The Loving family has reiterated that the couple was extremely private and would not want a road named after them.
“I’m saddened but understanding that [the family] is strongly opposed to renaming [Route 29] in honor of their parents and grandparents,” she tells ARLnow. “Privacy is a prevailing value for them.”
Late last year, a task force put together by the Lee Highway Alliance recommended renaming Arlington’s section of Route 29 to Loving Avenue. However, they also suggested four alternatives: John M. Langston Boulevard, Ella Baker Boulevard, Dr. Edward T. Morton Avenue, and Main Street.
Ginger Brown, Executive Director for the Lee Highway Alliance, tells ARLnow that Langston Blvd is the “strong second” choice.
Cristol noted that there remains some follow-up to be done with the Loving family, but at this point, naming Route 29 in Arlington after Mildred and Richard Loving isn’t likely.
“At some point, I’ll have to take a vote on this,” she says. “With what the family has said, we know that it would be hurtful for them. It would be hard for me to vote for that.”
Either way, HB 1854 — first introduced by Del. Rip Sullivan (D-48) — will allow the renaming, though it only applies to Route 29 in Arlington.
The bill notes that while the Virginia Department of Transportation will place and maintain the appropriate signage, the county has to pay for that signage.
Arlington County Board Chair Matt de Ferranti said the legislation is a “shared priority” at yesterday’s Board meeting.
“We are enthusiastic about the success of Del. Sullivan’s bill, and the County continues to work with our regional partners to seek a regionally consistent name for Lee Highway,” de Ferranti wrote in a statement to ARLnow. “The legislature advancing this bill to the Governor is an important tool now available to Arlington County in the renaming of Lee Highway and we will continue to seek a common name with our neighboring jurisdictions.”
Cristol says the timeline for the change is being coordinated with neighboring jurisdictions that the east-west artery also runs through, including Falls Church, Fairfax City, and Fairfax County.
“We have a shared interest in settling on the same name, for obvious reasons,” she says.
The county has been in touch with the jurisdictions, particularly Fairfax County, in hopes of collaborating on an exact timeline. The other jurisdictions are in the midst of their processes as well and are also considering the recommendations made by the Lee Highway Alliance’s work group.
Cristol pointed out Fairfax County has a middle school named after poet Langston Hughes, who was the great-nephew of John M. Langston.
She expects the renaming to officially happen “within months, not years.”
It’s been a long road to rename Lee Highway. While the process turned the ignition in July 2020, it was a subject of speculation at least dating back to 2016 when discussion of revitalizing the corridor began.
Lee Highway was actually established and named a century ago. It began as a trans-continental road connecting the western United States to the east, eventually cutting through Arlington and having a “grand entrance” into D.C as it passed by the newly-built Lincoln Memorial.
The construction and the naming of the road was actually controversial at the time as well.
Some felt naming the road after Robert E. Lee was “commercializing” the Confederate general. With the namesake road passing by the Lincoln Memorial, there were those that felt that this would lead to comparing the two.
And to be compared to Lincoln was a “slur” on Lee, at least in the eyes of the descendants of Confederate troops, according to a history posted on the Federal Highway Administration’s website.
Today, parts of U.S. Route 29 are still named “Lee Highway,” but mostly in the south. The Arlington County logo also prominently features the house Lee lived in, but that’s in the process of changing as well.
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