Langston Boulevard Emerges as Front-Runner in Lee Highway Renaming

The proposed name will enter a period of public comment and could be up for an official county board vote in July.

Lee Hwy SignThis story has been updated. 

Lee Highway, the arterial road that for nearly a century has borne the name of a Confederate general, will soon be renamed, and the moniker that appears its most likely replacement is that of famed Black abolitionist, attorney, educator and politician John M. Langston.

Langston Boulevard is the latest recommendation to emerge from a special, county board-appointed working group of the Lee Highway Alliance (LHA), convened last September to research and recommend alternative names for the portion of the road that passes through Arlington County.

The 25-member working group’s initial recommendation (shaped, in part, by community engagement and polling) was to change the name of the road to Mildred & Richard Loving Avenue in honor of the couple who successfully challenged Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage. But that proposal was scrapped when the Lovings’ family objected to the idea.

“I spoke to some of the descendants of the Loving family and they felt very strongly that their grandparents were private people and they would have preferred not to have [their name] used in that way,” says Arlington County Board member Katie Cristol.

Other names in the running included Ella Baker Boulevard (for the civil rights activist), Dr. Edward T. Morton Avenue (for the first Black candidate to run for Arlington County Board) and Main Street,  but Langston Boulevard has emerged as the top alternate.

“I know the working group supports it as the second choice,” Cristol says. “I support it as the second choice.”

The new name is not a done deal. Once the working group submits its revised recommendation to the county board, a period of public comment will ensue (likely to include a public hearing at the June 12 county board meeting) before the board convenes for an official vote.

John Mercer Langston Brady Handy

John M. Langston

John M. Langston was one of the first African Americans elected to public office when he became township clerk in Brownhelm, Ohio in 1855. His connection to Arlington began in 1867 when he was appointed inspector general of the Freedman’s Bureau overseeing Freedman’s Village, a settlement for formerly enslaved people on land that is now part of Arlington National Cemetery. He would later be elected to the U.S. Congress as the first representative of color from Virginia.

Langston established the law school at Howard University, serving as its first dean, and was the first president of what is now Virginia State University, a historically Black college. During the Jim Crow era, Arlington’s segregated John M. Langston Elementary School along Route 29 was named after him.

Saundra Green, a member of the LHA working group representing Calloway United Methodist Church, attended John M. Langston Elementary School as a child.

“I favor that name because he stands for everything that is good, and there were a lot of firsts attached to him,” Green says.

Wilma Jones, president of the John M. Langston Citizens Association and a member of the LHA working group, notes that Lee Highway was known as Falls Church Road until the 1920s, when it was renamed to send a message of intimidation to the Black communities that relied on the corridor for business.

“The Falls Church Black community now known as Tinner Hill, as well as Hall’s Hill in Arlington, had thriving commerce [along Route 29],” Jones says. “The fact that the government is willing to try to rectify the discrimination and racism that the people who lived there experienced is a good thing.”

The movement to change Lee Highway’s name isn’t new, but it gained renewed momentum after last year’s social justice protests.

The current push comes two years after Washington-Lee High School became Washington-Liberty, and one year after the Arlington County Board initiated a redesign of the county logo and seal, which for decades has been a stylized likeness of Arlington House, the former plantation home of Robert E. Lee.

“In the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the reckoning about racial inequality that happened here in Arlington, there was a lot of community interest in names and symbols,” Cristol says. “Maybe the biggest one was the Arlington branch of the NAACP focusing on changing the county logo. [Another] that emerged with a lot of community support was the idea of changing the name of Lee Highway, which had been a long-held goal of a lot of stakeholders along the highway.”

Longtime residents like Green and Jones say the name change is long overdue.

“We shouldn’t go with another generation having to live with these racist names,” Green says. “The names should be reflective of how we live today and the things that we stand for today—diversity and equal justice. I know we can’t erase the past, but we surely can embrace the present and move toward the future.”

Previously, name changes to state roads (such as the 2019 decision that allowed Arlington to change Jefferson Davis Highway in Crystal City to Richmond Highway) required the approval of the Commonwealth Transportation Board or the Virginia General Assembly. In January, the Virginia Senate passed a bill (HB 1854) introduced by Del. Rip Sullivan that grants the Arlington County Board the authority to rename the portion of Lee Highway that passes through Arlington. That bill was signed by Gov. Ralph Northam in March and will become law on July 1.

The county board is now slated to vote on a resolution to officially rename the road at its July 17 meeting.

Categories: Community