Lee Highway Renamed to Langston Boulevard

Arlington County Board votes to change the name of Lee Highway


Photo by CindyKanePhotography.

The mural was created by Kaliq Crosby and celebrates John M. Langston at 5010 Langston Blvd.

An Arlington resident clicks on Google Maps in 2023, looking for a route. But something piques their interest. They’ve lived in Arlington their whole life, but they have never heard of a road running from Rosslyn to Falls Church, labeled Langston Boulevard. A new road was not built overnight. 

The Arlington County Board voted to change Lee Highway to Langston Boulevard in July 2021 “to reconcile the painful racial history many in the community have experienced,” according to the renamed Langston Boulevard Alliance (LBA). The LBA is a nonprofit that works on economic development along the former Lee Highway. On October 7, 2020, the Alliance spent six hours going through more than 200 community suggestions for the name. 

“[Along with the time it took], we had all kinds of rules, too, like it can’t be another street in Arlington,” Executive Director and Co-Founder of the LBA, Ginger Brown said. “It [also] couldn’t be someone that was alive, [and the precedent is] naming things [at least] five years after [an individual has passed].”

This meant that suggestions like naming the road after the recently deceased Ruth Bader Ginsberg were crossed off. The LBA shared the names Loving, Langston, Ella Baker and Main Street with the County Board as suggestions. 

After polling more than  3,000 Arlingtonians, Loving was the number one choice. The Lovings were a couple who went to the Supreme Court because their interracial marriage violated a Virginia statute. County Board member Katie Cristol reached out to the grandchildren of the Lovings, who rejected the name, as they did not want the road to be named after the couple.

“[They] want to respect the wishes of their grandparents,” Matt De Ferranti, chair of the Arlington County Board, said. “The more I learned about the Lovings, [I found that] they didn’t seek out this Supreme Court case [and] they didn’t want the notoriety, they just loved each other.”

The road was renamed Langston Boulevard after John Langston. The name has historical significance in Arlington. John M. Langston Middle School was the name of the school that generations of African American students in Arlington attended before Stratford Middle School was desegregated. 

Stratford Middle School was the first non-segregated school in all of Virginia. The historic building was converted into H.B. Woodlawn and then recently into Dorothy Hamm Middle School.

“[At the school], we were nurtured, we were really loved by our teachers, [and] a lot of our teachers lived in our neighborhood, which is different than now,” Anita Green, a former student of the John M. Langston school, said. “My first grade teacher taught me in the first grade and the second grade, and she was also my Sunday school teacher.”

Green is also a historian of the Hall’s Hill neighborhood, as well as a member of the LBA. She was involved in helping choose the new name, and approved of the name ultimately chosen by the County Board.

“Sometimes change can be hard,” Brown said. “But because [the new name of the road is] familiar and because it sounds good and because it has such deep connections to the community, [it is not as hard].”

John M. Langston was the son of a slave and a white planter, born in 1829. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863. Langston’s father recognized Langston as his son, and left him with money after he died. Langston decided he wanted to be a lawyer and applied to law school in Ohio and New York. He was rejected, so he went in person to plead his case in Ohio.

“The gentleman said . . . he would conditionally see if he could become a part of the law school by having him sit in the rear of the room,” Green said. “[Langston was instructed] to say nothing, to [try and] pass for white or Caribbean, and to see if the other students [in the class] would accept him, but he absolutely would not do this.”

Ultimately, Langston passed the bar exam by studying as an apprentice under a Republican Congressman, and never went to law school. He was the first dean of Howard University.  

“He helped found Howard University’s Law School which led to some fantastic themes and eventually to [the first African-American Supreme Court Justice of the United States], Thurgood Marshall who was, for me, one of my heroes,” De Ferranti said. “[He was] one of those who has structurally just reshaped our country for fairness and justice,” De Ferranti said. 

John M. Langston ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming the first black man elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in Virginia. Originally, the election was called for Langston’s opponent, but Langston contested the election. There were long lines for black Republican voters, missing ballots, and undue pressure on voters by his opponent. After a long investigation, with only seven months left in his term, Langston was declared the winner of the election. He was not reelected.  

He was one of five southern African Americans voted to Congress during the Jim Crow era. Another black Congressman would not be elected from Virginia for another century. 

“It was very gratifying that at the July board meeting we had only one speaker in opposition to changing the name to Langston Boulevard, and everybody else came to speak in favor,” De Ferranti said. “[There were] 500 people who sent [supportive] messages to us.”