LITTLE ROCK, Ark.—Seeking to distance itself from a checkered racial past, Little Rock erased “Confederate Blvd.” from highway signs just weeks before dignitaries arrived for the opening of Bill Clinton’s presidential library.
The Confederate Boulevard signs had been the first landmarks many saw after landing at the city’s airport. And while the boulevard still runs north from Interstate 440, signs now tout a southbound stretch of the same road named “Springer Blvd.,” which honors black community leaders Worthie and Horace Springer and their family.
“We did have an incredibly significant event that was occurring here, and that was something that was bothersome,” said Mayor Jim Dailey, whose city, until Clinton, was best known for the Central High School desegregation crisis of 1957. “We have a city that is in every way trying to dispel those things that divide us.”
The city had renamed part of the highway Springer Boulevard in 1974, but the state listed only the Confederate name on the four corresponding exit signs when the interstate was built in 1981.
A month before the Clinton dedication, Dailey wrote to the state Highway and Transportation Department asking it to change the signs from “Confederate” to “Springer.”
Clinton Foundation president Skip Rutherford said his group did not ask for the change, which was made Nov. 4, two weeks before the dedication. Clinton made racial reconciliation a theme of his presidency and continues to promote the cause through his library and museum.
Randy Ort, a Highway Department spokesman, said the agency has received some complaints about renaming the boulevard, which runs past national and Confederate cemeteries. One came from the Arkansas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
“This road-street-blvd was named to honor all Confederates that fought (Mexican, African-American, Jewish, etc.—all ethnic groups fought for the South during the War of Northern Aggression!),” wrote Danny Honnoll of Jonesboro.
In an interview Monday, Honnoll said that while the city has honored the Springers and Clinton, it was doing a disservice to thousands of men and women of all colors who died during the war. “We’re not just honoring white Confederates,” Honnoll said.
Lottie Shackelford, who served as the city’s first black mayor, said anti-Confederate sentiment had nothing to do with renaming part of the roadway three decades ago.
“I’m not even sure there was a great association of Confederate Boulevard with racism. I mean, it didn’t have the same connotation as the Confederate flag has now,” she said. “The community was just trying to honor a family.”
Little Rock in recent years has named other thoroughfares for Martin Luther King Jr. and Daisy Gatson Bates. Bates served as a mentor for the Little Rock Nine, the first black students to attend Central High School after President Eisenhower ordered the 101st Airborne to Arkansas to enforce a federal integration order.