PITTSBORO — When the United Daughters of the Confederacy sought to have a highway named for Confederate president Jefferson Davis in 1913, they decided to mark their chosen route — about 160 miles — with signs, stone markers and honorary designations from local governments. In North Carolina, while the UDC was unsuccessful in officially naming the highway after Davis, they did place about 16 to 18 markers along the route, according to the N.C. Dept. of Transportation, about every 10 miles along U.S. 15 between Virginia and South Carolina.
Today, NCDOT believes there are eight Jefferson Davis Highway markers in the state — one of which remains in front of the Chatham County Historic Courthouse in Pittsboro.
“The markers were placed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy sometime in the 1920s, and it was a part of a multi-state project,” said Steve Abbott, the NCDOT assistant director of communications. “The NCDOT was never a part of the project and never approved the naming of the highway, and never approved the installations in our right of way.”
Even so, the department began moving to erase some of the last remnants of the highway last summer, The Raleigh News & Observer reported in November, by removing signs and markers in the state-owned right of way.
In Virginia, the name was officially adopted. But in North Carolina, the N&O reported that NCDOT officials said requests from the Daughters of the Confederacy in the 1920s and again in the late 1950s were both denied.
“Since the Board of Transportation never took action designating or naming any road in North Carolina for Jefferson Davis, there is not any board action needed,” Abbott told the News + Record. “When all this started some time ago, we were not sure what action was taken previously. So that was part of the long process of finding out what took place and when.”
“We never found documented evidence of the naming,” he added. “So the markers will be treated like any similar item that is placed in the right of way without DOT approval.”
Still, when the board’s road naming committee met in November, it signed off on NCDOT’s plans to remove several Jefferson Davis Highway signs in Granville County, the N&O reported. Kevin Lacy, the department’s traffic engineer, said at the time that though the signs are official highway signs, it’s unclear how they got there.
“There’s no reason for those to be there,” Lacy told the committee.
In Chatham, it’s not clear when the marker will be removed. The markers belong to the United Daughters of Confederacy group, Abbott said, so the DOT will contact the group with “a request that they work with local government to remove or relocate” it.
“There is no timeline for any of that action,” he said.
Lacy told the News + Record he had not sent any formal communication to the UDC at this time, though he’d spoken with a member and “told them what to expect from us.” As the markers were place in the 1920s, Lacy said he will verify that DOT does actually own the right of way.
“It is questionable in some cases,” he said.
In November 2019, the Confederate monument that once stood near the Jefferson Davis marker in front of the Pittsboro courthouse was removed after urging by local and out-of-town activists alike. Even after removal, the courthouse has remained a lightning rod for protests between Confederate supporters and self-described antiracist activists.
Since the monument’s removal, Chatham officials have noted a desire to move forward from what many have called a “painful time” of the county’s history. Most recently, the contentious U.S. presidential election resurrected the site as a battleground of ideologies.
While protesting activists have continued to also call for the removal of the marker honoring Davis — who in addition to serving as president of the Confederacy was part of a slave-owning family and owned slaves himself — conversation about doing so has been limited.
“After speaking with a representative from the N.C. Dept. of Transportation, we understand that they are in the process of contacting the various chapters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who own the markers,” county manager Dan LaMontagne said. “We will allow this process to move forward before determining next steps.”
At this point, Abbott said, a deadline for that process has not been made.
“... This is no different than when someone else has put something on the right of way without permission,” he said. “If it is not a safety issue and it can be determined who put the items there, then we work with that group and give it time to arrange to remove or relocate it.”
While the dialogue in the county has largely focused on the Confederate monument, rather than the marker, the fact that the monument sat near the road some colloquially and formerly knew as Jefferson Davis Highway was not lost on community organizers.
“It was only a matter of time before the monument here became a locust point of organizing,” former Pittsboro Mayor Randy Voller told the News + Record last March. “This was becoming a national movement. They tore the monument down in Durham, then the Silent Sam situation (in Chapel Hill). Where’s the next logical place? Well, look at the map and you can see the Jefferson Davis Highway, where they put these monuments. The one in Pittsboro — that’s the significant one. It’s right in the middle of U.S. 64 and U.S. 15-501. It’s right in front of a prominent historic courthouse.”
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at email@example.com.
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