It’s one thing to tear down Confederate monuments and other celebrations of slavery in cities or public spaces. It’s quite another if you’re a college named for Confederate General Robert E. Lee that includes the shrine where he is buried.
That’s the conundrum facing Washington and Lee University, a small, private Virginia college where Lee served as president. The school has been struggling with its own history ever since universities like Georgetown started revealing their ties to slavery and a Robert E. Lee statue in nearby Charlottesville became a rallying point for white supremacists last August.
A commission tasked with reviewing the university’s ties to slavery and race issues on campus released 31 recommendations to the school president Friday, including turning Lee Chapel — where Lee’s body is buried — into a museum with information about both sides of Lee: the man whose investment financially saved the university and the staunch defender of slavery.
The University is also considering hiring a genealogist to identify descendants of the 84 slaves owned by the university, and working toward some kind of reconciliation. Suggestions include funding school tuition at colleges of the descendants’ choice, hosting an annual gathering for living descendants on campus, and hosting campus lectures about the slaves’ contribution to the campus.
The report does not recommend the university strike Lee from its name, or that it change the name of its sports mascot, “The Generals,” while acknowledging that these names make African American students uncomfortable. Washington and Lee is one of the least diverse universities in the country; just 41 of its 1,827 undergraduate students are black.
Alumni and current students are split: some are offended by the report’s criticism of Lee, and some wish the changes would be implemented immediately.
“Robert E. Lee and Washington are deified to the point that it’s almost blasphemy to say anything critical”
“Robert E. Lee and Washington are deified to the point that it’s almost blasphemy to say anything critical,” university alumnus Adam Lewis, 30, said of the school’s namesakes. “This report calls into question the blind loyalty. There is a willingness to let the pedestals wobble.” (Lewis has written for Tonic, a site owned by VICE Media.)
In the wake of the white supremacist rally about a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia last August, just 70 miles from Lexington where Washington and Lee University sits, students, alumni and faculty faced Lee’s lasting presence on campus as they prepared to welcome students back to school.
Lee became president of the school in 1865 and died there in 1870. Monuments to Lee on campus abound: his enormous, white tomb sits in Lee Chapel, his warhorse Traveler is also buried on campus, and the house he lived and died in, Lee House, is where the current university president lives. All of these symbols exclude the fact that he was a chief defender of slavery in the Civil War and a cruel slave owner himself.
By far the most contentious recommendation is to turn Lee Chapel, the central campus event space, into a museum. Incoming freshman are required to attend a honor code ceremony at the chapel featuring portraits of Lee and until recently Confederate battle flags that hung above Lee’s tomb.
“By continuing to hold rituals and events in Lee Chapel, the university, wittingly or not, sustains the Shrine of the South and the memory of Lee as a commander of the Confederate Army,” the report said.
The report recommends displaying only portraits of Lee in civilian attire, as he was not a general when he worked at the school, and displaying portraits of minorities and women who have contributed to the school’s history, such as the first African American graduate. Editor in Chief of the conservative school newspaper The Spectator, rising senior Hayden Daniel worries these changes are an effort to cover up the history of the school.
“I think they’re trying to show him in an incomplete light”
“I think they’re trying to show him in an incomplete light,” Daniel said. “Being in the military was his career for nearly 40 years, to take away that history is taking away such a large portion of his legacy, it’s not the same man. If you divorce his military exploits from the rest of his life you get an incomplete picture.”
After the violence in Charlottesville, a group of law students created the Coalition for Campus Change to push the administration to add historical context to the physical campus to make minority students feel more recognized. Other universities took immediate steps to remove Lee imagery from their campuses; Duke University and the University of Texas promptly took down Lee statues.
Rising third year law student Stefani Evans, a member of the Coalition, thinks the 31 recommendations have the potential to improve race relations on campus, but wishes the university would take action more quickly.
“If these recommendations were implemented I would feel like I’m a person and I matter, my history matters and should be told like everyone else’s,” Evans said. “But we just want to see something more tangible. Something that we can feel.”
One lesser-known campus figure is a man named John Robinson, who left the school 84 slaves when he died in 1826. Robinson is also buried on campus near an obelisk dedicated to him and a hall named after him. The commission recommended Robinson Hall be renamed immediately.
“Seeing my ancestors’ prices, that’s a feeling I can’t really describe”
“The hall's association with slavery at Washington College — i.e., that the Robinson bequest included enslaved persons who labored at the institution until the institution sold them to others — gives special urgency to this proposal,” the report said.
The university added a small plaque outside Robinson Hall in 2016 featuring a list of the slaves’ names, but many feel like that is not enough. Leah Williams, who is a descendant of those enslaved people, hopes her views will be considered as the university decides how to contextualize its history.
“I would like there to be something more substantial acknowledging that part of the history, that the school benefited from their labor and from them being sold,” she said. “Seeing my ancestors’ prices, that’s a feeling I can’t really describe. I was disgusted, saddened, angry, all in one moment. I think they deserve more than a plaque.”
Williams, who now lives in Ohio, was able to trace her family tree back to the Washington and Lee slaves, who were largely sold to a plantation in Mississippi in 1836, through Ancestry.com and with the help of alumnus Adam Lewis, who has dedicated that past several years to identifying living descendants of the school’s slaves. The commission recommends the school hire a genealogist and research fellow to track down all the living descendants, and consider creating a scholarship to fund their education at a college of their choice.
“I still sometimes think about how lucky we are to have the names of and know where our family was,” Williams said. “The fact that they would invest in giving that gift of knowledge to the descendants of the slaves who were held on the campus is amazing. I was really pleased and I felt like there is a sense of hope in reading that.”
President Will Dudley and the school’s Board of Trustees will consider the recommendations over the summer.