The long road to Harriet Tubman’s name replacing Dixie Highway. Holdout: Coral Gables

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Douglas Hanks
·7 min read
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Dixie Highway looks likely to survive another year in Miami-Dade County as backers of renaming the state road after Harriet Tubman face setbacks in Tallahassee and Coral Gables.

The city is the only local government in Miami-Dade to reject adding Tubman’s name to 42 miles of U.S. 1, a federal and state road that’s also gone by Dixie Highway for a century. County commissioners endorsed the switch last year as a way to replace a name often linked with the Confederacy with the name of the country’s most famous “conductor” of the Underground Railroad network used to free enslaved Americans before the end of the Civil War.

Passed unanimously in February 2020, the county resolution only created Harriet Tubman Highways off a few Miami-Dade roads that run along U.S. 1, which carried the names “West Dixie Highway” and “Old Dixie Highway.”

Swapping “Harriet Tubman” for “Dixie” on U.S. 1 itself requires a state process that could take years, allowing businesses along the highway time to update letterhead and promotional materials with the new address. But first, the Florida Legislature needs to approve the change. With just two weeks left to go in the 2021 session, supporters aren’t optimistic.

“Right now, it’s stalled. Dead,” said Sen. Shevrin Jones, the West Park Democrat who is a sponsor of the Senate version of the legislation, SB 1216. “We’ll have to do it again next year.”

Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman

Jones said the only outward opposition he’s encountered in the effort came not in Tallahassee, but in one of Miami-Dade’s most affluent cities. In January, a divided Coral Gables city commission voted against endorsing adding Tubman’s name to the portion of U.S. 1 that runs through that municipality.

Coral Gables votes no on Harriet Tubman Highway

“This is just a pure example of playing politics, when what we should be doing here is concentrating on issues that are effecting this community on a day to day basis,” Commissioner and Vice Mayor Vince Lago said during the Jan. 26 meeting, where he joined the 3-2 majority in voting down the renaming endorsement. “I feel a little bit uncomfortable moving forward.”

The two members of the commission that voted for the Tubman naming on Jan. 26 were outgoing Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli and Pat Keon, who lost the election to be the city’s next mayor on Tuesday. The winner was Lago.

The failed vote has stalled unveiling Harriet Tubman signs up and down U.S. 1. Florida put up the brown designation markers, but they remain “covered pending supportive resolutions from all local municipalities,” said Tish Burgher, a spokesperson for the state Transportation Department. On Wednesday, black plastic wrapped a sign where U.S. 1 meets Interstate 95 in Miami, with only “AN” visible to southbound motorists.

Black plastic obscures what looks like a Tubman Highway sign where U.S. 1 meets I-95 in Miami. A Florida Transportation Department spokeswoman said the state installed signs adding Harriet Tubman’s name to the highway, but that they will remain covered up until Coral Gables joins other cities with jurisdiction over parts of U.S. 1 in endorsing the addition. Gables commissioners narrowly rejected adding the Tubman name in January. The change is the first step in what advocates hope will be the retiring of the Dixie Highway name on U.S. 1 as well.
Black plastic obscures what looks like a Tubman Highway sign where U.S. 1 meets I-95 in Miami. A Florida Transportation Department spokeswoman said the state installed signs adding Harriet Tubman’s name to the highway, but that they will remain covered up until Coral Gables joins other cities with jurisdiction over parts of U.S. 1 in endorsing the addition. Gables commissioners narrowly rejected adding the Tubman name in January. The change is the first step in what advocates hope will be the retiring of the Dixie Highway name on U.S. 1 as well.

Before the Gables commission vote, Keon called the name change the right thing to do, given the racist undertones she said many linked with “Dixie” as a substitute for the states of the Confederacy. “It gives us reason to change ... from a name that has taken on the meaning of exploitation in the minds of many,” she said.

Race became an issue during the campaign when Lago joined other parents in criticizing an anti-racism program by the Carrollton School as misguided. In the commission debate, Lago warned that the pressure to remove the Dixie Highway name could help fuel an effort to remove a statue of city founder George Merrick, who advocated for moving Miami’s Black residents out of Miami in the 1930s.

“One of my biggest concerns ... was the issue of the fervor that’s growing now in regards to George Merrick,” Lago said.

This week, the mayor-elect said he wasn’t “opposed to renaming any street” but wanted more time for nearby neighborhoods to be part of the decision. “I am working with community leaders in those neighborhoods so they can help us in the city commission come up with the names they would prefer or support,” Lago said.

Coral Gables remains the lone holdout in Miami-Dade to the Tubman designation, a midway step in the state process that stops short of renaming Dixie Highway. Nine other municipalities, from Florida City to North Miami Beach, voted to approve the Tubman designation.

The votes, confirmed by Burgher, tied back to a 2020 state law authorizing a memorial designation on U.S. 1 for Tubman in Miami-Dade.

When approved by the Legislature, designations add a name to a state road, as long as local governments agree to segments within their jurisdictions. Those designations already exist on U.S. 1 — the Lawton Chiles Trail, Judge Steve Levine Boulevard — and are allowed to overlap.

Part of the 2020 law authorizing the Tubman add-on also triggered a state study on a permanent name change that would eventually strip “Dixie” from the road signs. Published in October, the 31-page report concluded the Dixie Highway switch on U.S. 1 and another four-mile stretch of State Road 909 that’s called West Dixie Highway would cost about $4.5 million.

When would Harriet Tubman replace Dixie Highway?

Of that, only about $1 million involves changing roughly 200 signs, including the labor and administrative costs for the state and local governments responsible for the roadway signage. The rest of the estimate seeks to account for nearly every cost that would eventually fall on nearby businesses and residents, down to the $25 fee it costs to change an address on a driver’s license.

Those cost estimates drive the extended timetable that would likely go with formally removing the Dixie Highway name, even if the bill sponsored by Jones and Rep. Kevin Chambliss, D-Homestead, became law.

The legislation gives Florida’s Transportation Department the authority to set a transition period where the Dixie Highway address would remain in place, when maintenance schedules and business churn would lead to many signs being replaced anyway. A separate bill, SB 646, by Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, would require renaming the various Dixie Highway routes across Florida.

The Tubman Highway effort began when Modesto Abety, the former head of a childhood-services funding agency in Miami-Dade known as The Children’s Trust, asked county commissioners to remove “Dixie” from a highway he had traveled for years but hadn’t thought of the name until a granddaughter asked about it.

“She said, ‘That’s just wrong,’ ” Abety recalled last year. He said his granddaughter’s amazement that Dixie could still be celebrated in 2020 had him questioning why the name had endured as well. “I have to cross South Dixie Highway maybe five or six times a day. You see it every day. You hear it every day. But you don’t react to it.”

On Wednesday, Abety said it was offensive to still have a nickname tied to the Confederacy and slavery, and raised the possibility of forming a political action committee to advocate for the Tubman name and possibly call for a boycott of Coral Gables.

“This is an issue about right and wrong,” he said. “It’s disgusting we still honor the brutality of slavery with this name. We will continue to fight.”

He and Tom Petersen, a retired Miami-Dade judge, are working with Miami-Dade County’s Tallahassee lobbying team to help push the state legislation needed to complete the Dixie Highway erasure. Petersen said he thinks the partisan divide in the Republican-controlled Legislature makes the effort harder. As president, Donald Trump delayed plans launched in the Obama administration to put Tubman on the twenty-dollar bill.

“In North Florida, Harriet Tubman is not as popular as Donald Trump,” Petersen said. “I think that may have something to do with it.”