What’s in a name? When it comes to Hburg streets, it’s sometimes hard to tell

By Sukainah Abid-Kons, contributor, and Bridget Manley, publisher

The memory of the confederacy is not difficult to find in Harrisonburg. Turner Ashby is monumentalized on the spot where he died, and the high school just outside town bears his name. And around town, some streets have commemorated the war with their names.

As the current calls for racial justice collide with the country’s history of systematic racism, many Confederate memorials around the country have come down or been renamed. Most recently, 11 statues were removed from Richmond’s Monument Avenue. 

The Harrisonburg City Council will discuss on Tuesday how to update city policies about who can suggest a street name and who gets final approval and will vote on amendments to the city ordinance.  

But city spokesman Michael Parks said in an email to The Citizen that council members haven’t suggested any specific streets to rename, but instead are focused on clarifying the policy for future names. 

The two amendments to the policy, according to Parks, include: 

  • Newly developed subdivision streets can continue to be named by the developer of that project/street, but they must do so while abiding by the standards established in the City’s policy.
  • Additionally, policy will clarify that it is the city council’s discretion to name something after someone who is still living or after a non-Harrisonburg resident — though doing either should be in rare circumstances.

As for the existing streets, efforts to rename them aren’t on the council’s agenda. And a closer look at the history of those names shows more mystery than certainty thanks to a lack of official record-keeping and a hodge-podge of ways Harrisonburg streets were named in the past.  

Where the streets have old names

A cross-check of streets in town with lists of Confederate officers show that perhaps as many as two dozen streets could have a confederate connection. Some are clear: Ashby Avenue, Lee Avenue, Jackson Street. 

Others are questionable or potentially coincidental. Take Armstrong Lane, for instance. Was it named for Frank Crawford Armstrong? Or possibly a family named Armstrong who lived there? Or maybe Louis Armstrong? Was Harris Street named for Nathaniel Harris or was it a shortened version of Thomas Harrison or named after one of the many other thousands of Harrises who walked the Earth over the last two centuries? Was Hill Street named for Confederate Gen. Ambrose “A.P” Hill or Confederate Gen. Daniel Harvey “D.H.” Hill or just the fact that it’s actually at the top of a hill? 

Officially, no one knows for sure. Harrisonburg has no official street-name documents and no databases through which to verify those streets’ namesakes and the original reasoning behind them.  

Most street names in Harrisonburg in recent years have been suggested by developers building neighborhoods. Many neighborhoods have streets named after trees and plants. 

And 171 years of various city council administrations, periods of expansion and growth and spurts of rezoning and annexing left a confusing patchwork of old names that have been accepted and used by generations. 

Former city mayor Joe Fitzgerald, who served on the city council from 2000-’04, said many street names in Harrisonburg were names already given by the county before the city annexed those neighborhoods. Central Avenue near the Park View and Keister Elementary areas is one example, Fitzgerald said.  

He said the city didn’t approve official policies for conducting business until the 1990s. 

“The city manager hired in 1992 began crafting many of the city’s current written policies. Many policies that were habits and customs were not written down before that,” Fitzgerald said. “We were ‘The City with the Planned Future,’ but a lot of that plan might have been written on the back of a napkin at the Elks Lodge.”

The city also doesn’t maintain any database containing when and who named city streets, let alone for whom they were named. 

Parks said it’s possible some original development documents could mention an idea behind proposed street names, but no single database exists. 

“How that typically works is we can sometimes look back through records to see when a neighborhood was built, for example, and see if there is any documentation regarding that project that discusses the naming of the roads that are created in that neighborhood,” Parks said. 

But much of the inspiration and reasoning appears lost to history. 

“The sources of street names are like family stories. Somebody was going to write them down before it was too late,” Fitzgerald added. 

Parks also said some roads in Harrisonburg are state roads, over which the city has no jurisdiction.

Renamings happen, but rarely

Renaming streets isn’t unheard of in Harrisonburg. In 2014, Cantrall Avenue officially changed to Martin Luther King, Jr. Way, after a public campaign led by many residents. 

Before that, streets would sometimes be renamed in accordance with public sentiment. For instance, local historian David Ehrenpreis said Liberty Street wasn’t always called by that name. 

“Up until 1914 it was called German Street,” said Ehrenpreis, a professor of art history at JMU. Changing the name from “German” to “Liberty” was meant as a reflection of loyalty to the United States during World War I.

Ehrenpreis also said in the early-to-mid 20th century, Harrisonburg hosted parades and big gatherings on Memorial Day to remember the fallen confederate soldiers, but those traditions faded with time. 

For now, council will focus on future names of streets and not, at the moment, whether change will also come to Dixie Lane. 

Do you know the backstory behind a Harrisonburg street’s name? Do you have an opinion about whether streets should be renamed and, if so, how? Then continue the conversation on The Citizen’s Facebook page

Streets with possible (or coincidental) connection to Confederate leaders or Confederate heritage:

  • Ashby Avenue (Turner Ashby)
  • Armstrong Lane (Frank Crawford Armstrong)
  • Butler Street (Matthew Butler)
  • Campbell Street (Alexander Campbell) 
  • Cook Creek (Phillip Cook) 
  • Davis Corners Lane (Jefferson Davis, Joseph Davis, or William Davis) 
  • Dixie Avenue
  • Early Road (Jubil Anderson Early) 
  • East Mosby Road (John S. Mosby) 
  • Ferguson Drive (Samuel Ferguson) 
  • Green Street (Thomas Green or Martin Green) 
  • Harris Street (Nathaniel Harris) 
  • Hill Street (Ambrose “A.P” Hill or Daniel Harvey “D.H.” Hill) 
  • Jackson Street (Stonewall Jackson) 
  • Kelly Street (John Kelly) 
  • Lee Avenue (Robert E Lee) 
  • Morgan Road (John Tyler Morgan) 
  • Preston Drive, Preston Lake, Preston Shore (John S. Preston or William Preston)
  • Stuart Street (J.E.B. Stuart)  
  • Taylor Grove, Taylor Spring, Taylor Springs (Richard Taylor or Thomas H. Taylor)

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