The new street sign for Druid Hills Way, formerly Jefferson Davis Street, was officially unveiled by city representatives Friday morning, with a smattering of residents in attendance.
It’s the first of nine streets to be renamed in the coming months, after recommendations from a city commission in December.
Davis was the president of the Confederacy in the 1860s. He had no ties to Charlotte, but retreated to the city during the final days of the Civil War.
In March, the Observer examined the history of Jefferson Davis Street. Longtime residents described it as a close-knit community with a legacy of Black home ownership, and some resented growing up in the shadow of the slave owner’s name.
“Obviously, we’re a long way from the Confederacy and the long, dark history that it represents. And Charlotte is a progressive city. Charlotte is a moving city,” said Malcolm Graham, a City Council member and chair of the city’s Great Neighborhoods Committee. “It is really important that as we move forward as a community, that these names reflect who we are as a community here in Charlotte.”
The clear theme of Friday’s press conference was progress. City leaders stressed that the street renaming shows Charlotte’s commitment to moving in a “progressive way forward.”
“Today’s unveiling represents a positive change and a step in the right direction,” Graham said. “This is a reminder that we are dedicated to reimagining civic spaces and creating this symbolic landscape that all Charlotteans can be proud of.”
Historians and community members of Charlotte’s Legacy Commission, formed by Mayor Vi Lyles after protests last summer, evaluated the city’s Confederate monuments and street names associated with “slavery, Confederate veterans, white supremacy or ‘romanticized notions of the antebellum South.’ ” It reported that nearly every street named after a person in Charlotte before the late 1800s honors a slave-holding family.
The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that more than 1,700 monuments, public buildings and military bases across the country have ties to the Confederacy. Streets that invoke Confederate symbolism, the center said, far outnumber those named after civil rights leaders.
“This work began with the mayor’s charge to form the Legacy Commission, but this has evolved and come full circle because of this community,” Graham said. “I want to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of you from this community — for your input, your thinking and for leading us in the right direction.”
City Council members Larken Egleston, whose district includes Druid Hills Way, and Renee Johnson were also in attendance.
A city spokesperson said that the sign bearing Jefferson Davis’s name was taken to a recycling center earlier this week.
‘A perfect fit’
As a black drape over the new sign swayed in the crisp fall air before the unveiling, residents watched from across the street.
Adrian Pegues lived on the former Jefferson Davis Street for more than three decades. His father bought their house in 1976, and after his death, his mother sold the house in 2007. Now he lives off Rozzelles Ferry Road in west Charlotte.
Peugues only recently learned who the street used to be named after.
“I didn’t feel no kind of way,” he said. “A name is a name.”
But after seeing the new sign, Pegues admits it’s a nice change.
“It’s a perfect fit for this neighborhood. It’s a good, loving, family community,” he said. “It’s a street named for everybody.”
Peugues might have Melissa Gaston to thank for the new moniker.
She lives a couple streets down on Edison Street, so she couldn’t vote for the new street name, but Gaston said she did suggest it.
“I grew up in a community that was very diverse in Maryland and so we had a lot of places named ‘way’ and ‘circle,’ “ she said. “I just thought it was the perfect thing. It was something new.”
City Council voted to begin the process in February, and community members submitted name recommendations this summer. Residents decided on the new name last month after voting from late July until early August.
Druid Hills Way won with 55% of the vote.
When Gaston and her late husband Darryl Gaston moved into the community years ago, she didn’t notice the street name at first. But after looking Jefferson Davis up, she remembers thinking, “Oh, no.”
Gaston reached out to the City Council years ago and asked that the street be renamed, but there wasn’t a push for change like there is now, she said.
“I think now’s a perfect time for this to happen because I think it’s going to improve the momentum in the city,” she said. “We’re going to continue to go forward. The world is changing, and Charlotte needs to be able to change with the world.”
After her husband died in February, one longtime resident suggested the street be renamed after him — Darryl was a champion of the Druid Hills community.
“For them to do a street in North End as one of the first streets that they changed, I think it’s just exciting,” she said. “Darryl would definitely be excited.”
Gaston believes the former street name had an emotional impact on the people who grew up there — and she thinks it was an intentional decision.
“If you go back and look at their original deeds, they say that only colored people could actually live on this street, so it’s just interesting you would name it after Jefferson Davis,” she said. “It was named after somebody who is definitely not for African Americans or people of color.”
What she says was a “demoralizing” wrong against residents has finally been righted.
“I think this change in the name allows people to have freedom and feel proud of where they are from,” Gaston said. “Druid Hills Way used to be a vibrant place in the past. And I think it’s moving back toward that vibrancy.”
Next streets up
Montford Point Street, formerly Phifer Avenue, was also renamed this month.
The new name honors the legacy of the first Black people who enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in 1942, contributing to the Allied victory in World War II. Charlotteans were among the recruits who trained there. The street is located in uptown’s Fourth Ward and is expected to close when the nearby Hal Marshall site is redeveloped, which doesn’t have a set time frame yet.
William Phifer was one of Charlotte’s most prolific slaveowners.
Next on the list are Aycock Lane, Zebulon Avenue and Jackson Avenue.
Aycock is likely named after Charles Aycock, a N.C. governor who was the primary architect of the state’s white supremacy movement at the turn of the 20th century. Zebulon Baird Vance served as a Confederate governor, then later as North Carolina’s governor, member of Congress and U.S. Senator. Jackson Avenue is the second Charlotte street named after Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson.
Voting starts Sept. 27 and continues through Oct. 11. The new names will be effective Nov. 29.
Stonewall Street will be the final street renamed sometime in June 2022.