RALEIGH — More than a century ago, when Southern cities and towns were still erecting Civil War monuments, the United Daughters of the Confederacy sought to have a highway named for Confederate president Jefferson Davis that ran from Northern Virginia across the South to California.
The route they chose through North Carolina runs about 160 miles from the Virginia state line, following U.S. 15 through Durham and Chapel Hill south to Sanford, then U.S. 1 to South Carolina near Rockingham.
Now the N.C. Department of Transportation is trying to erase some of the last vestiges of the highway, by removing signs and markers in the state-owned right of way. The groundwork for the effort was laid this summer after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis led to a reappraisal of Confederate monuments and symbols.
The Daughters of the Confederacy conceived of the Jefferson Davis Highway in 1913, partly as an answer to the Lincoln Highway that was dedicated that year between New York and San Francisco. The group identified the highway's route along existing roads, then promoted the name with signs, stone markers and state and local government resolutions.
Some states, such as Virginia, officially adopted the name. But NCDOT officials say despite requests from the Daughters of the Confederacy in the 1920s and again in the late 1950s, North Carolina never did.
Last week, the board's road naming committee signed off on NCDOT's plans to remove several Jefferson Davis Highway signs in Granville County. Kevin Lacy, the department's traffic engineer, said the signs are official highway signs, but it's not clear how they got there.
"There's no reason for those to be there," Lacy told the committee.
Lacy said he will also write a letter to the state division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy asking it to work with local communities to remove several stone markers along the highway.
In the late 1920s, the Daughters of the Confederacy placed stone highway markers about every 10 miles, which means there would have been 16 to 18 markers in North Carolina, including one at each state line. NCDOT was able to locate 10 markers, including two, in Aberdeen and Chapel Hill, that have already been removed, Lacy said.
While NCDOT wants the signs and markers gone, the agency is not seeking to rename a section of U.S. 1 in Lee County, from Tramway south to the Moore County line, that is actually called Jefferson Davis Highway. The Daughters of the Confederacy asked the county to so designate the road in 1959, and Lee commissioners agreed, according to a copy of the resolution provided by the county.
Lacy suggested that because the county named the road NCDOT should let the county handle any changes, which would affect the addresses of numerous residents and business owners.
"My recommendation is keep us out of it for that small segment of the roadway until the locals are ready to address it," he told the committee.
But Lee County officials say if the highway is to be rechristened it should be up to NCDOT or the General Assembly. No one has asked Lee County commissioners to rename the road, said spokeswoman Jamie Brown, and the county isn't considering it.
"Our board feels that this is a state-maintained road, they have the authority, based on statute, to name this road, and that this is not a county issue," she said.
Removing Jefferson Davis Highway markers has not always been straightforward. In October 2018, the Orange County Board of Commissioners responded to a citizen petition and voted to repeal a resolution from 1959 that designated U.S. 15 through Orange County as the Jefferson Davis National Highway.
But commissioners said they didn't have the authority to take down a stone marker for the highway on East Franklin Street in downtown Chapel Hill.
UNC students and others who pressed the university to remove the Silent Sam statue on campus also wanted the highway marker gone. So did town officials in Chapel Hill.
But a month later, the town determined that the marker was in fact on town property and removed it along with a plaque put up by protesters.