Alexandria City Council fires back after ‘woke’ criticism on renaming streets named after Confederate leaders

Members of the Alexandria City Council at their town hall meeting at Charles Houston Recreation Center on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023 (staff photo by James Cullum)

The Alexandria City Council at its town hall meeting on Saturday shot back at criticism over its plan to rename streets named after Confederate leaders.

Council answered public questions for two hours Saturday morning at Charles Houston Recreation Center, and the meeting took a decisive turn when Mayor Justin Wilson read the following question:

“It seems to me that the renaming of Alexandria streets is woke,” Wilson said, reading a question from a resident. “Instead of embracing our perverse and at times sad history, we are trying to erase it. We are a city of slave traders and… we should speak proudly of all we embody. What do you think?”

City Council plans on renaming dozens of streets named after Confederates. The effort is expected to take 15 years, with roughly three streets being renamed through a community selection process per year. Six streets were tapped as potentially having their names changed early next year.

City Council Member Kirk McPike said that Alexandria’s City Council in the early 1950s intentionally named dozens of streets after Confederate officers and other figures.

“It was done to send a message of hate,” McPike said. “A message of exclusion to African Americans and to those who supported what at the time was emerging civil rights movement. These people who were never part of Alexandria’s past should not pretend to be a part of Alexandria’s future.”

Forrest Street, for instance, is named after Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Lee Street is named after the family of Confederate commanding Gen. Robert E. Lee.

“I have a real issue with the term of ‘woke,'” said Council Member Alyia Gaskins. “As a black woman who is a descendant of slaves, I cannot proudly walk around and celebrate people who wanted to erase me, who thought of me than not just as less of a person, but not even a person. Let’s understand, but that doesn’t mean we have to create monuments or signs to celebrate people who did heinous and horrible acts, who wanted to  recognize  and believe that other people did not deserve to live and be valued in the Alexandria that we love and appreciate.”

Forrest Street, named for Nathan Bedford Forrest (image via Google Maps)

City Council Member John Taylor Chapman said that if it were up to the Confederacy he would have been working on a piece of property. He also said that the effort to name streets after Confederate leaders was rooted in the disinformation of the Lost Cause belief romanticizing them.

“Our city was inhabited for the most of the better part, I would say, 95% of the Civil War by with the Union army,” Chapman said. “We were basically a garrison for them during the war.”

Council Member Sarah Bagley said that she’s not proud of the city’s slave trading history.

“I really do invite people to look at that 1953 ordinance, that the streets that we are focusing on initially in this process were the result of an ordinance that explicitly said everything on a certain side of the city heading in a certain direction shall be named to honor a Confederate figure,” she said. “That was proactive and intentional. That’s what we are doing.”