Richland road honors Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. This man wants it renamed

A former Richland city councilman is renewing calls to rename Lee Boulevard, which commemorates U.S. Army Corps General-turned-Confederate rebel Robert E. Lee.

Jim Stoffels, 81, who served on the city council from 1972-75, asked the current city council this week to rename Lee Boulevard.

“We have come to value racial equality as a hallmark of our society,” he told the council

He called on it to join the nationwide movement to remove memorials that celebrate the Civil War’s legacy of racism.

“I believe it is time for Richland to join this movement and change the name of Lee Boulevard.”

Peace Bell
Richland resident Jim Stofells has recommended the city rename Lee Boulevard, which commemorates Civil War icon Robert E. Lee. The 36th annual Atomic Cities Peace Memorial, marking the anniversary of the Nagasaki atomic bombing will include ringing of the Bell of Peace, a gift to Richland from the mayor of Nagasaki in 1986. Jim Stoeffels organizes the event. File Tri-City Herald

Stoffels, a retired physicist for the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, is also chairman and treasurer of Richland-based World Citizens for Peace, which advocates against atomic weapons.

He was moved to act after a friend told him Lee Boulevard honored the Confederate leader.

He doesn’t plan to press the issue, but hopes the council will discuss it further.

The council did not act this week.

Civil War namesake

It’s not the first time Richland has been confronted about Lee Boulevard and its Civil War namesake.

Two years ago, Richland resident Martin McBriarty drew attention to Lee Boulevard in a Facebook post that said it “glorified the Confederacy” and “MUST be removed.”

The post inspired a furious debate on social media and lots of news coverage, but the name remained.

Nationally, though, pressure has grown to remove Confederate monuments and rename schools and roads after the infamous Aug. 12, 2017, Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va.

The rally turned violent when a white supremacist plowed through a crowd of protesters, killing one.

Richland’s Lee Boulevard is a busy east-west arterial running between Howard Amon Park and Cottonwood Drive near Highway 240. It got its name in the 1940s.

Stoffels said he wasn’t surprised Lee Boulevard got its name decades before the Civil Rights movement.

At the time, Dupont Corp., primary contractor for the Hanford Engineering Works, was moving quickly to support the Manhattan Project. Richland, not yet a city, developed quickly to house tens of thousands of workers recruited from the South to carry out the work.

Black Hanford workers segregated

Many Richland streets were named for Army Corps luminaries, Lee being one.

A plaque on private property at Lee Boulevard and Thayer Drive commemorates Lee as a “potent symbol of regional pride and dignity ...”

Lee entered the Corps of Engineers after graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1829. He served with distinction, participating in every major battle of the Mexican American War and later as superintendent of West Point.

He left the Corps in 1855 to accept an assignment as a lieutenant colonel in the 2nd Cavalry Regiment. When his native Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861, he followed, rising to commander of the Confederate States Army.

Stoffels linked the Confederacy’s mission with historic mistreatment of black Hanford workers.

African Americans accounted for an estimated 15,000 of the workers recruited to the Hanford Engineering Works.

They worked at Hanford, but were forced to lived in segregated housing or across the river in Pasco, Stoffels reminded the council.

Stoffels acted alone in his call for a new boulevard name, but he was supported by another Richland resident who attended this week’s council session to discuss an unrelated matter related to flags.

Andrue Ott supported Stoffels’ request to change the street name.

Ott told the Herald he respects honoring history, but changing the name could be an opportunity to make new history by acknowledging racial disparities.

“We don’t have many opportunities to make major statements,” he said.

Wendy Culverwell writes about local government and politics, focusing on how those decisions affect your life. She also covers key business and economic development changes that shape our community. Her restaurant column and health inspection reports are reader favorites. She’s been a news reporter in Washington and Oregon for 25 years.