By Crawford Humphreys

Lexington City Council is considering a proposal to allow residents to initiate name changes to streets that honor slaveholders and the Confederacy.

But at least one council member says City Council should take the lead in renaming streets.  A community organization also wants council to take responsibility for renaming streets.

Lexington is among cities in Virginia that are considering such a policy. Over the past year, Richmond and Alexandria have adopted procedures for changing street names. But they have taken different approaches as to who controls the renaming process.

City Council Member Marylin Alexander says she worries about older people navigating such a process. But she said she believes it’s time to look at how the city honors people who owned slaves or championed the Confederacy.

“I think it’s a cleanup process to set some things right that have been wrong for 100 years,” she said. “We’ve got some cleaning up to do, it’s taking time, and we just want to get it done right.

The proposal says that residents can start the name-changing process by circulating a petition and obtaining signatures of 75 percent of property owners on the street. The residents would have to pay a $400 fee. They also would need to come up with a new name.

City Council would need to give final approval before any change could take place.
Council Member Charles Aligood said the city’s elected officials should be leading on the issue.

“To put the burden on the people who live on the street kind of relieves City Council of having to make that decision,” he said.

Council Member Chuck Smith said he and other members might be accused of a power grab if they renamed the streets without input from residents.

“If we start renaming streets without street residents’ support, [that] would be a bit of an overreach by government,” Smith said. “I think renaming a street … has broader impacts that I don’t think we’ve discussed yet.”

50 Ways Rockbridge, a community activism group, has circulated a petition calling on City Council to rename Confederate Circle, Jackson Avenue, Lee Avenue, Rebel Ridge and Stonewall Street.

“We oppose the street-renaming plan the Council is currently considering,” the petition says. “It would lay the burden and cost of this reckoning and reconciliation where it does not belong – on individual property owners.”

Melissa Cox, a longtime resident of Lee Avenue, said her neighbors have had no discussions about changing the name under the proposed policy.

“I think it’s something that needs to be looked at, but I’m not willing to pay $400 for that,” she said.

Jackson Avenue resident Andrew Christensen says the proposal is symbolic. He says the city needs to take more substantive steps to address the past.

Jackson Avenue residents are split on if it is worth changing the street’s name. Photo by Crawford Humphreys

“I am a Black man, and my wife is white. We’re almost certainly the first interracial couple to own property on Jackson Avenue,” he said. “The fact that we can live here and raise our three small children on a street named for a Confederate hero, is a much more significant indicator of the substantive progress in racial equality … than a superficial name change.”

In June, the Alexandria City Council approved a similar street renaming policy after George Floyd died when a police officer in Minneapolis kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for several minutes.  Alexandria’s policy requires 75 percent of a street’s property owners to go along with the proposal.

Only one street renaming proposal is under review in Alexandria, according to the city’s public information database.

On Nov. 9, the Richmond City Council unanimously approved the renaming of Confederate Avenue without requiring a petition or fee from the street’s residents. The council also unanimously approved the renaming of Jefferson Davis Highway.

“The City of Richmond, on its own initiative, did that,” Aligood said.

The Lexington City Council plans to continue to discuss the proposal at its regularly scheduled meeting on March 4.

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