Efforts to eliminate the “Jefferson Davis Highway” in Arizona stalled Monday amid questions of exactly where it is, who has the authority to change the name — and whether it even exists at all.
Members of the state Board on Geographic and Historic Names said they could not consider two separate proposals to rename the road, one for slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and the other for former Gov. Rose Mofford. That’s because the number currently on the highway named for the president of the Confederacy is not the same as it was when the road was designated.
Applicants were told to come back with a revised proposal with the proper sites.
But the board also refused to consider a separate request to strip the name “Jefferson Davis” from any place it shows up on state maps. In fact, the board’s staff was able to find a reference to the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway on some official Arizona Department of Transportation maps, albeit from 1992.
The Rev. Reginald Walton said that should make the board’s job simple.
“That means that wherever we find that name, be it whether you know it now or whether you do need to do some more research after the fact, you can take the step to remove the name now,” he told the board. “And it will be applicable to wherever it is found.”
But board members were not interested in such a blanket move, at least not on Monday.
“I can sympathize with your frustration,” said member Chuck Coughlin. But he said he and his colleagues won’t act until they get answers to some legal questions.
One of those is whether there actually is an official Jefferson Davis Highway despite a marker near Apache Junction designating the road as such.
ADOT, for its part, questions whether there actually is such a designation despite a 1961 vote by the Arizona Highway Commission, legal predecessor of the State Transportation Board, to designate a U.S. 80 through Arizona as part of a planned coast-to-coast Jefferson Davis National Highway, and despite those 1992 maps.
And even if that can be resolved, Dennis Preisler said the names board he chairs has no power to actually remove the monument along U.S. 60 east of near Apache Junction, a monument which proclaims the road as the Jefferson Davis Highway. That appears to be a problem for ADOT, in whose right of way the monument was placed in 1962, which in turns makes it an issue for Gov. Doug Ducey who appoints the agency’s director.
The governor, however, has shown no interest in directing that any of them be altered or removed.
“It’s important that people know our history,” Ducey said last month. “I don’t think we should try to hide our history.”
And ADOT spokesman Tim Tait said there are no plans to remove the monument, even if it is on state right of way, as it does not appear to be a traffic hazard and no state funds are expended in its upkeep.
Monday’s lack of action frustrated Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, who has been working for years to strip Arizona of Confederate monuments and designations.
“To simply push it off is what we’ve seen from the governor’s office to this board to every single member that we’ve had conversations with,” he said. “Let’s just make a decision.”
Preisler, however, said the board simply won’t be rushed into anything until all of the questions are answered. That pushes any decision back at least a month, the earliest the board can meet again.
The issue dates back a century to when the United Daughters of the Confederacy sought to designate a series of roads in the South in honor of Davis. It would match the Lincoln Highway which runs from the Northeast to San Francisco.
In 1932 the Arizona Good Roads Commission approved markers at the spots where the road entered the state in
New Mexico and exited at California. One was placed in 1943 along U.S. 70 at Duncan.
Then in 1961 the Highway Commission approved the request by UDC to designate all U.S. 80 through Arizona as the Jefferson Davis National Highway. That covered the road from east of Douglas through Tombstone, Benson, Tucson, Florence, Mesa, Phoenix and then out to Yuma through Gila Bend.
At about the same time, the monument at Duncan was moved to its current location east of Apache Junction on what at that time was part of U.S. 80.
But here’s the thing: U.S. 80 was “decommissioned” in 1989.
All that remains is a stretch from Benson to the New Mexico line which was redesignated as State Route 80. Much of the rest of it became part of U.S. 60, including where the monument sits.
What that means, Priesler said, is the petitions to rename the road after King or Mofford are out of order, as they refer to U.S. 80 which no longer exists. He told proponents of both proposal to recraft them, this time referring to U.S. 60 which is the designation of the road in front of the monument.
Marissa Scionti, however, said none of that should affect the petition she submitted to have the commission simply search out the Jefferson Davis name wherever it shows up on official maps and vote to strip it.
“The name Jefferson Davis represents racist ideas,” she told commissioners. “That’s what he’s known for: being president of the Confederacy and working to preserve slavery.”
And if nothing else, Scionti said, Davis is “simply not in Arizona history.”
That, however, still leaves the question of whether there really is a Jefferson Davis Highway in Arizona.
Tait acknowledged that older ADOT maps do show stretches of the road with that designation, even after U.S. 80 was decommissioned in 1989. But he said they do not show up on current maps.
And board staffer Ryan Ehrfurth said he can find no mention of the Jefferson Davis name anywhere in Arizona on the national Geographic Names Information System.
The fight over the naming of the road and the monument that marks it is just one of the issues about the future of monuments to the Confederacy.
A memorial in the park across from the Capitol, placed there in 1961, remains as the Capitol Mall Commission questions whether it has the authority to remove it.
There are signs and markers at Picacho Peak, where a Civil War battle was fought, including at least one praising the Confederate soldiers who fought there. That is within the purview of the Parks Board.
As recently as 2010 one was erected in the new state Veterans Cemetery in Sierra Vista. The Department of Veterans Services will say only that it was erected and maintained by private interests.
ADOT, the Parks Department and the Department of Veterans’ Services all are within the Ducey administration.
Bolding said the governor’s stance that the monuments are part of history does not address the fact that, the battle of Picacho Peak aside, there is no Civil War link to Arizona and all of these monuments were erected decades after the conflict. Bolding said the one across from the Capitol was placed there “right in the middle of the civil rights movement … as a way to use that symbol to let African-Americans to know they should not have equal rights, to sort of bring back all of what the Confederacy stood for during its time.”