Local

A Chapel Hill highway no longer honors a Confederate leader. But what about the sign?

This stone marker sits at the intersection of East Franklin and Henderson streets in Chapel Hill recognizing U.S. 15 through Orange County as part of the Jefferson Davis Highway. The marker sits in the N.C. Department of Transportation right of way, but may be privately owned.
This stone marker sits at the intersection of East Franklin and Henderson streets in Chapel Hill recognizing U.S. 15 through Orange County as part of the Jefferson Davis Highway. The marker sits in the N.C. Department of Transportation right of way, but may be privately owned. tgrubb@heraldsun.com

A marker honoring the only president of the Confederate States of America still stands on Franklin Street but no longer with the support of Orange County government.

Several residents petitioned the commissioners earlier this year to repeal a 1959 resolution honoring Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

On Tuesday evening, the Orange County Board of Commissioners voted 6-0 to repeal the resolution designating U.S. 15 through Orange County as the Jefferson Davis National Highway. Commissioner Earl McKee arrived at the meeting too late to cast a vote.

“Just to be clear ... the county doesn’t have any authority to take the plaque down,” Commissioners Chairman Mark Dorosin said, “but we did want to come forward and formally correct the historical record.”

The county also will petition the N.C. Department of Transportation to find out who owns the marker, which sits at the intersection of East Franklin and Henderson streets just outside of UNC’s McCorkle Place, where the Silent Sam Confederate statue stood atop a pedestal for 105 years until protesters toppled it Aug. 20.

Commissioners want to ask the owner to remove the stone pillar topped with a bronze plaque.

NCDOT staff think the marker is privately owned, County Attorney John Roberts said. Since there is no federally recognized Jefferson Davis Highway, the 59-year-old resolution didn’t have any legal effect, he said.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy campaign to install Jefferson Davis markers across the country began in 1913. The goal was to create a system of highways — the Jefferson Davis Memorial, Jefferson Davis and Jefferson Davis National highways — to honor the former Confederate president, slaveowner and white supremacist.

The UDC was inspired by plans in 1912 to create a coast-to-coast rock highway to honor President Abraham Lincoln, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

At that time, private groups could freely name and improve roadways, because there were no state highway agencies. The United Daughters of the Confederacy approached local and state government officials about renaming local roadways, even after the federal government started numbering highways in 1926.

The original Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway, which crossed the South from Florida to California, included U.S. 1, U.S. 15, U.S. 29, U.S. 80 and U.S. 90. Other sections were added along the West Coast and through North Carolina and other eastern states over time.

The Jefferson Davis Highway markers were part of a wider effort to romanticize and promote the values of the Confederacy and white supremacy, Orange County resident Nan Fulcher told the commissioners Tuesday. Those efforts and the mischaracterization of slavery and acts of oppression continue today, she said.

“Today, some people argue that naming a roadway for a historical figure like Jefferson Davis is simply a means to honor one’s forefathers and Southern heritage,” Fulcher said. “But to honor a man for his leadership while ignoring the role he played in perpetuating injustice only serves to subvert historical truth and to invalidate its victims.”

Roberts said a state senator may have approached the commissioners about the resolution in the 1950s; members of the public who spoke Tuesday said it may have been UDC representatives. That board voted to rename the local portion of U.S. 15 as part of the state’s 166-mile Jefferson Davis National Highway on June 1, 1959.

The resolution was approved without a public hearing.

The marker was hit by a car and damaged in 2002 or 2003, according to Jake Sullivan, chief of staff with the N.C. Chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The group restored the marker to its location, but the marker was moved to the current spot a short time later by NCDOT crews who landscaped and reconfigured the Franklin-Henderson street intersection, he said.

Orange County resident and UNC faculty member Altha Cravey said removing a marker erected during the Jim Crow era is an important step toward creating inclusive community spaces.

“Markers that glorify the Confederacy were erected during the Jim Crow era to remind each one of us where we stood in the rigid social hierarchy designed by white supremacists. Statues, roadway markers, building names and building insignia – these were given prominence by white supremacists during Jim Crow to remind us that they were in charge and they were powerful.

Those symbols and markers were a form of violence undertaken by white women and the UDC in particular that should not be allowed to flourish in Orange County, she said.

Other cities have reconsidered their Jefferson Davis highway designations and markers in recent years. In June, The Washington Post reported that the Alexandria, Virginia, city council took that step, renaming its portion of U.S. 1 to Richmond Highway.

The section of U.S. 1 that runs through adjacent Arlington County has not been renamed, however, since that would require the state’s General Assembly to act, the Post reported.

Grubb: 919-829-8926; @TammyGrubb
Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer

  Comments