While the first meeting of the Rt. 7 and Rt. 50 Renaming Task Force was set up as a briefing on the committee’s process for coming up for new names for Harry Byrd Highway and John Mosby Highway, the committee’s debate over those new names has already begun.
Members of the committee debated whether they should take names of individual people off the table, with several worrying naming the roads after specific people could put Loudoun County in the same situation in the future.
“That’s why we’re here in the first place, because we may pick names and in 20 or 30 years, you might get somebody [who] doesn’t like those names,” said committee member and former Planning Commission chairman and Heritage Commission member Cliff Keirce. “So I think we should just avoid that potential problem in the future.”
A debate on one name in particular followed after committee member Daniel Eisert suggested George C. Marshall as a likely candidate for the honor. Another committee member, nonprofit founder and former library board chairman Mark Miller pointed out, “as a Jewish American, George Marshall was vehemently opposed to creation of Israel.”
Heritage Commission Chairman Robert Pollard defended Marshall’s legacy, arguing “the story about Marshall and Israel is complex, and it should in no way eliminate him from consideration,” and “if one small slice of a person’s background could be offensive to one, some or many, then we (the county) could be back in this position in the future.”
But Loudoun NAACP Education Chairwoman Robin Burke argued that it may not be impossible to predict which figures will become controversial in the future. She pointed out that Marshall had maintained that it was essential for the U.S. Army to remain segregated during World War II—and that at the time Harry Byrd Highway was named, he was not an uncontroversial figure. The highway was named in 1968, at the height of the civil rights movement.
And Loudoun NAACP President Michelle Thomas offered another idea for honoring individual people with highway names.
“I actually think that perhaps this could be a great time to level the playing field in terms of the way we use names and refer especially to our underrepresented communities, like the enslaved,” Thomas said. She suggested even using a person with no known last name: “It could be a person that was just enslaved at Belmont, or a commonly enslaved known name. I want to reserve the right to, in places, use names of enslaved people.”
Keirce also offered the simplest answer to the dilemma.
“I’d like to make this real quick,” Keirce said. “I think Rt. 7 should be called Rt. 7, Rt. 50 should be called Rt. 50, because that’s all anybody calls those two roads, then we’re done.”
Some committee members also wanted to know when they would be able to meet in person, as Loudoun has maintained its state of emergency even as the state has lifted its own emergency declaration and all other COVID-19 precautions have been relaxed. The committee is permitted to meet electronically under the state of emergency.
“The challenge with the public meeting at this point is, we’re not confident yet that we have a space large enough that people who desire social distance are allowed to maintain that space,” said county government Communications Manager Shawn Zelman. “We’re a little concerned about crowding. So, for example, we don’t know if we’re going to be able to get back into school buildings.”
And others were concerned that the proposed schedule doesn’t give the committee enough time. The current schedule calls for a public outreach campaign to gather name suggestions from July 12 to July 23, two weeks.
“If we’re really going to give the public, we really want public input, I think that I think they need three weeks,” said Heritage Commission member Alicia Cohen. County staff members said they would try to squeeze in a longer public input period. Miller, a veteran of many county committees, also expressed skepticism that the schedule, which sees final recommendations going to the Board of Supervisors on Dec. 7, gives the committee enough time.
The task force will meet again on Aug. 4 or Aug. 5, depending on members’ schedules, after the public outreach campaign. More information is at loudoun.gov/renaming7and50, and there is a tool online to check street name availability at logis.loudoun.gov/streetrenameavailability.
Loudoun County supervisors in December started wheels turning to rename Rt. 7 and Rt. 50 where they honor lawmaker Harry Byrd, known for leading “massive resistance” to integration in Virginia, and Confederate cavalry commander John Mosby. In May, they followed up by setting out a process for coming up with and recommending new names for those highways, creating the renaming committee.