The murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on Memorial Day 2020 sent the United States into an unprecedented period of reckoning for America’s racist past. Confederate monuments came tumbling down, among the most recent and prominent: the towering 131-year-old statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond.
Names of schools, streets and sports teams also fell under scrutiny. The name of Washington’s NFL football franchise — a dictionary-defined slur against Native Americans which had been a target of activists for years — finally fell despite owner Daniel Snyder’s declaration that the old name was inviolable. While the team has yet to announce its permanent new name, the team’s president pledged that it would have no Native connotations. Shortly afterward the Cleveland Indians baseball team, which already had retired its offensive “Chief Wahoo” mascot, said that henceforth the franchise would be known as the Guardians.
School districts are also removing Confederates’ names from their buildings. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, of about 300 schools with Confederate-themed names at the time of Floyd’s murder, about a third have changed their names or have committed to doing so. Cities and towns around the country have renamed numerous streets in order to cease honoring Confederates. Schools are also dropping names appropriating Native American imagery — 47 this year alone, according to the National Conference of American Indians, although over 1,900 still use Native names, including 93 that retain the racial slur that the Washington Football Team abandoned.
In addition to sports teams, schools and streets, there are a number of localities, mostly counties, across the South named for Lee, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and a number of lesser-known Confederates. (Leesburg, VA, was named for Lee’s family but long predates the Civil War.) Movements to rename Confederate-branded jurisdictions are extremely rare, with one of the very few prominent ones currently underway taking place in Fort Bragg, CA, named for rebel general Braxton Bragg.
However, a few locations have names that seem innocent on the surface — but which originate in racist sentiment. Arlington County, VA, for example.
During the colonial period, the land that is now Arlington was part of Fairfax County. When the nation’s capital was located on the Potomac River, a 100-square-mile diamond of land was carved out of Virginia and Maryland to form the new federal enclave, the District of Columbia. Initially, that District was composed of five jurisdictions. The northern side, formerly Maryland, included the existing city of Georgetown, the in-construction federal city of Washington and a swath of then-rural land dubbed Washington County. The southern territory, formerly Virginia, was divided between the existing city of Alexandria and the land ceded by Fairfax, which was named Alexandria County.
In 1846 the former Virginia territory was ceded back to that state, largely in response to appeals from Alexandria slaveholders who feared increasing abolitionist sentiment in Congress would lead to freeing the District’s slaves. While Congress had legislative power over DC, it did not over Virginia. Congress eventually did free the District’s slaves, but not until 1862.
In 1920, Virginia changed the name of Alexandria Country to Arlington County. It ostensibly did so to remove confusion with the city of Alexandria — although there was no similar move to address any confusion between two jurisdictions named Fairfax, one a county and the other an independent city. But where did the name “Arlington” come from?
The answer: from Lee’s Potomac River estate, which came to him via his wife’s family, the Custis clan — descended from Martha Custis Washington and offspring from her first (pre-George) marriage. That estate later became the site of Arlington National Cemetery. The Custis-Lee mansion, also known as the Arlington House, still stands on a prominent hill in the cemetery and is visible from much of the Mall area. Just below it burns the eternal flame at the grave of John F. Kennedy.
Yes, the name Arlington was a tribute to Lee and part of the movement to memorialize Confederate figures in the South during the Jim Crow era. As with the rise of Confederate monuments and the naming of schools, roads and other public infrastructure, the name Arlington was a subtle — or perhaps not so subtle? — declaration of white supremacy in Northern Virginia, one of many efforts to impress on Black Virginians that their citizenship was barely second class.
I write these words as a resident of Washington, DC, a jurisdiction whose name incorporates both that of a slave owner and the architect of New World colonialism and genocide. But a partial rectification came in 2016 when the District adopted a new constitution for such time as DC becomes a state.
An earlier constitution had adopted “New Columbia” as the name of the prospective state, but that came before the Columbus quincentennial and the new focus on the man’s vile legacy. The new constitution, by contrast, retained the “DC” but declared that it would stand for “Douglass Commonwealth” in honor of abolitionist icon and DC resident Frederick Douglass. As for the “Washington,” that is the name of a historic municipality that was effectively wiped away in 1871 when the separate jurisdictions within DC were eliminated and merged into a single territorial government. One can make the case that slaveowners should not be honored in any way, but those who actively rebelled against the US government in order to maintain slavery are an especially egregious case.
I don’t expect a crusade to change the name of Arlington to emerge immediately, soon or perhaps ever. But in the case one arises, what name could replace that of Arlington? For this I would defer to the good people of that county. The Black Heritage Museum of Arlington would be a good place to start looking for ideas. There are a number of prominent Black Arlingtonians who might be honored, such as pioneering physician Dr. Charles Drew, or 19th-century abolitionist and feminist Sojourner Truth. (“Truth County” has a nice ring to it.) Or reverting back to “Alexandria County” would work. After all, no one in Maryland seems aggrieved that Baltimore is the name of both a city and a neighboring county.
I certainly think the vast majority of citizens of that county would reject the sentiment behind its name, and suspect fewer are even aware of this history. But perhaps even those aware of its origins might consider it old news and that today the name “Arlington” bears different connotations — of a dynamic, modern jurisdiction with liberal-to-progressive politics that celebrates its diversity and progress.