The right thing finally happened in South Florida last week. Dixie Highway is now Harriet Tubman Highway. A sign proclaiming the new name was unveiled on Saturday, the first in a series that will replace the signs that have long tarnished our landscape.
With cars whizzing by, state and local lawmakers and other assorted leaders applauded as the wrapping fell away from the new sign near the Vizcaya Metrorail station. Tubman’s name was there for all to see.
Getting to this moment should have been a snap. It wasn’t. Eventually, 10 communities and Miami-Dade County all approved resolutions to remove the names West Dixie, Old Dixie and South Dixie Highway from 42 miles of roadway — the name goes back a century — and replace it with the name of the legendary abolitionist.
But Coral Gables became a shameful speed bump in the process, requiring two votes to get it done. Commissioner Vince Lago, now mayor, initially voted against the measure — trying to excuse his No vote by claiming that his opponent introduced it just to score political points. In May, Coral Gables and Lago finally approved it, unanimously.
Removing a name linked with the Confederacy is, of course, simply removing a symbol. It doesn’t erase the past or scrub away the enduring stain of slavery. It doesn’t fix our current problems with racism.
But symbols can also be powerful things. Earlier this month, a 12-ton statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was removed from Richmond, Virginia, a move that happened only after the towering statue became a focus of Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Two weeks later, a monument honoring the abolition of slavery rose, a few miles away.
Symbols, yes, but they matter.
And we can look much closer to home. In 2017, Hollywood in Broward County made a much-needed change to the names of streets named after Robert E. Lee and two other Confederate generals. They became Freedom Street, Freedom Drive and Hope Street.
If you still don’t quite understand what’s in a name, think about what former Miami-Dade County Commissioner Dennis Moss said at the Harriet Tubman Highway unveiling ceremony: “If there was a Fidel Castro Highway in Miami-Dade, would we say ‘Get over it’? It would not just be no, it would be hell no. … The time is always right to do something right.”
The Dixie Highway name and its associations haven’t vanished. There are still many more areas of the more-than-5,000-mile highway in Florida and other southern states that have yet to shed the name. Officially changing the rest of Florida’s Dixie Highway would take approvals from the state Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis. Anyone want to take bets on that happening?
But, in Miami-Dade County, the right thing happened. It’s a good start.