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Could renaming streets in Northern Virginia promote racial healing?

Jefferson Davis Highway is seen from the roadside just before Occoquan Road in Woodbridge, VA. (Brittany Greeson/The Washington Post)

Hume Avenue sits just off Alexandria’s Jefferson Davis Highway, behind the National Tire and Battery store. Like the highway, the three-block stretch of modest homes was named for a Confederate leader, although one not as well-known as the president of the Rebel states.

Now both streets could get new names, along with at least 31 others in Alexandria, the latest ripple in a national debate over the Confederacy that erupted after the shooting rampage at a black church in Charleston, S.C., allegedly carried out by white supremacist Dylann Roof.

[The trailer where Dylann Roof found refuge]

The Alexandria City Council last week said it would appoint a citizen commission to recommend whether to rename streets that are linked to the Confederacy and whether to remove a statue of a grieving Confederate soldier on South Washington Street in Old Town. The council also voted to stop a longtime city practice of hoisting the Confederate flag from traffic-light poles near the statute on Confederate memorial days — joining a growing list of state and local governments that have reined in displays honoring the Confederacy.

On Hume, residents say the reconsideration of the city’s long-established Southern roots is complicated.

“I have mixed feelings,” said Maria Wasowski, who was gardening in her front yard on a recent morning. “People are used to the names of streets and don’t think of the associations [with Confederates]. Streets named for those who are major figures — that’s different.”

Her street was named for Frank Hume, a former Confederate soldier and self-described spy who served as a signal scout for Gen. J.E.B. Stuart. Wasowski said she did not consider it particularly offensive. But she would support renaming Jefferson Davis Highway and Beauregard Street in the West End, which honors Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard, who designed the Confederate battle flag.

[Complete list of streets named after Confederates in Alexandria]

Michael B. Wheatley, a music teacher who was leaving a student’s lesson on Hume on Friday morning, said he was in favor of renaming all the streets.

“We’re Yankees now,” he said. “It’s been a while. They lost. They should get over it already.”

But Jock Murray, a soft-spoken former employee of the Library of Congress who lives on the street, called the push to change street names “reactionary.”

“I don’t know why people harbor such intense feelings over something that happened 150 years ago,” he said.

[Alexandria’s fraught Southern history]

Since the church shooting, South Carolina has removed the Confederate flag from its statehouse grounds, and Virginia and Maryland said they would stop issuing specialty license plates that depict the flag.

Confederate monument in Rockville, Md., spray-painted with “Black Lives Matter” in July, is now boxed up in plywood while county officials decide whether and where to move it.

Democratic Party activists in Alexandria and Arlington, in Maryland and elsewhere are mulling whether to continue to call their annual fundraisers Jefferson-Jackson dinners, after slave owners Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Arlington County Democrats have appointed a committee to look into whether to rename its Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner, and their counterparts in Alexandria are doing the same.

“There’s a lot of concern about the antebellum issues of race and slavery,” Pat Murray, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party, told the Baltimore Sun last week. “Certainly we’ve heard concerns about the fact that these two founders of the party had values that don’t really align with the modern party’s values of inclusiveness and diversity.”

But change has costs. Alexandria officials estimate that replacing the signs on Jefferson Davis Highway would cost $15,000 to $50,000, and the price for renaming the other 32 streets would be about $300,000. There are 30 additional streets in the city that may have been named for Confederates, but the historical office can’t say for sure.

Jim Becker, head of a Northern Virginia chapter of the Sons of the Confederacy, said renaming all the streets would be “narrow-minded.”

“It was a complicated time, and just like today, everyone had their own opinion,” Becker said of the Civil War period. “We should never forget where we came from and our country’s past, warts and all.”

[Backlash on flag is, to some, ‘an attack . . . on our heritage’]

Alexandria has a city charter, so it has the power to change the name of Jefferson Davis Highway if it wishes, the city attorney told the City Council last week. (Part of the road, where it splits into separate northbound and southbound segments are named Patrick and Henry streets.) But City Manager Mark Jinks suggested that Alexandria should coordinate any change with neighboring Arlington, because the highway also goes through that jurisdiction and because the county would have to seek power for such a change from the General Assembly.

Arlington County Board Chair Mary H. Hynes (D) said the board plans to seek such a change so that the highway can be called “something comfortable for the people who live and work on the street. Now it’s a hurtful name for our African American and incredibly diverse, welcoming community.”

She noted that in Fairfax County, Jefferson Davis Highway is known as Richmond Highway.

State Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria) said he thought it would be “very challenging” to get a bill through the Republican-controlled legislature to allow the county to change highway names.

“Colleagues have asked me that if we do this, where will it stop? Some of them consider it to be erasing history,” said Ebbin, who lives within a quarter-mile of the highway. “I don’t intend to engage in an empty exercise with my colleagues.”

Back on Hume, resident Bridget Wendling said she had not been aware that her street was named for a Confederate soldier who settled in the city.

“I did not know that,” she said as she walked her Doberman and chatted with a neighbor. “I don’t know if I can articulate this, but I don’t think we should be celebrating things that offend people. But I don’t know that our street name offends people.”