Arizona Capitol

Renaming Jefferson Davis Highway Is Turning Out to Be a Bureaucratic Nightmare

The Jefferson Davis memorial outside Gold Canyon.
The Jefferson Davis memorial outside Gold Canyon. Antonia Farzan

On Monday morning, the Arizona State Board on Geographic and Historic Names convened to discuss renaming the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway. But by the meeting's end, the board members still hadn't decided whether the highway even exists.

"It was Kafka-esque," Josselyn Berry of ProgressNow Arizona, which has been petitioning to rename the highway, said afterward. "Really frustrating."

Over the past few months, the movement to remove Confederate memorials from state land has been gaining momentum, and the board had three different citizen-submitted proposals to consider. One suggesting renaming the highway in honor of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.  Another proposed naming it after former Arizona governor Rose Mofford. A third simply advocated getting rid of Jefferson Davis' name.

Ultimately, all three failed to get a vote due to a technicality: They were talking about renaming U.S. Route 60.

That's because the Jefferson Davis monument is located on what's now U.S. Route 60, just outside Gold Canyon.

But as Ryan Ehrfurth, the board's research librarian, explained, that monument doesn't designate U.S. 60 as the Jefferson Davis Highway. Rather, it was the former U.S. Route 80 — now State Route 80 — that wound up with that name.

"The question is, when U.S. Highway 80 was decommissioned, did the Jefferson Davis name go away, too?" he asked.

The answer would appear to be no, it didn't: Current Arizona Department of Transportation maps still show the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway near the Fort Huachuca military reservation.

But the board was hesitant to conclude that the Jefferson Davis Highway does, in fact, exist.

"Other than seeing it on the maps, we don't know that's the official name?"  board chair Dennis Preisler asked.

"Maybe what we need is some sort of statement from ADOT on whether they recognize that as the name," Ehrfurth replied.
In the meantime, people who had submitted petitions were told they'd have to resubmit their proposals, and clarify that they were talking about renaming State Route 80. They weren't thrilled.

"A lot of this information has come to light after we put our proposals in," Shannah Redmon, who'd submitted a petition to remove Jefferson Davis' name, said. "This is a highly controversial and debated issue — so from the public interest standpoint, we hope that we can get an answer as to whether this Jefferson Davis Highway exists or not."

Reverend Reginald Walton offered the board a suggestion: Why not vote now, and do the research later?

"You can take the step to change the name now, and it will be applicable wherever that name is found," he said. "You have that authority."

He got no takers.

click to enlarge A 1916 map shows the proposed route of the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway. - LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
A 1916 map shows the proposed route of the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway.
"Personally, I sympathize with your request on this matter," board member Chuck Coughlin said. "I want to be supportive of a properly agendized, properly formatted request that would give this board the opportunity to do something meaningful and legal."

Added Preisler: "We're a very deliberative board. We have to follow certain procedures. What we do is, we do a lot of research."

Finally, state Representative Reginald Bolding, who's been leading the charge to remove the monuments, got up and located the slide that showed the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway running past Fort Huachuca.

"The name does exist and it is on the map," he said, clearly low on patience. Why, he wondered out loud, had no one thought to contact ADOT until the meeting was already underway?

"To say that we need more time to pick up the phone, to go to a department that’s literally located across the street — I think it’s an absolute disservice and shows an absolute lack of leadership," Bolding said.

Interestingly, none of the board members suggested that they'd be opposed to changing the road's name. But they didn't seem eager to help fast-track the process, either.

"Can you explain what you're afraid of?" Emily Kirkland, Berry's co-director at ProgressNow Arizona, asked the board as the hearing wrapped up. "Is it a political risk? Are there legal risks? If so, what are they?"

"It’s just that it’s a deliberative process," Preisler said once again. "We don’t rush into anything."

Wondering why Arizona has a highway named after Jefferson Davis in the first place? Here's a brief history of the state's Confederate monuments.
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Antonia Noori Farzan is a staff writer at New Times and an honors graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Before moving to Arizona, she worked for the New Times Broward-Palm Beach.