No Confederate Flags in Washington & Lee University’s Chapel

Update: Thanks to Stuart W. Sanders, who at one time worked as a docent at the Lee Chapel, for providing some context to this discussion. Update #2: Here is W&L president’s response to “The Committee.”

Statement by "The Committee"

Statement by “The Committee”

I first heard about this story on one of the Southern Heritage Facebook pages, but now a group of black law students at Washington & Lee University, who are demanding that their university distance itself from its Confederate past is gaining some traction [and here]. This push comes on the heels of the steps taken by the city of Lexington to limit the display of the Confederate flag on public property.

The group of students, who call themselves “The Committee” have published a list of demands that includes a formal recognition of MLK Day and an apology from the university for its participation in slavery. They are on shakier ground, in my opinion, with the following two demands.

2. We demand that the University stop allowing neo-confederates to march on campus with confederate flags on Lee-Jackson Day and to stop allowing these groups to hold programs in Lee Chapel.

3. We demand that the University immediately remove all confederate flags from its property and premises, including those flags located within Lee Chapel.

I certainly sympathize with this group of students, but their list of demands goes too far for a college campus. First, college students and administrators should want their campuses to be bastions for the free exchange of ideas in classrooms and other venues.  You will and should be offended while attending college. Students should consider all perspectives regardless of whether they find it offensive, hurtful, dangerous, etc. It’s a little disappointing to read such a demand from a group of law students.

As for the Confederate flag I do not believe that the university should fly it from buildings and other campus locations in a way that can be interpreted as an endorsement. Of course, it doesn’t. The Lee Chapel is a difficult structure to navigate on this score. After all, it is the burial site of Robert E. Lee. There are Confederate flags in the chapel, but there are also flags throughout the museum exhibit below, where they are properly interpreted. Are these students seriously suggesting that all of these flags be removed? Finally, the programs in the chapel on Lee-Jackson Day have feature some of the most respected historians we have, including Gary Gallagher, Robert Krick, and William C. Davis. Why should they not be allowed to speak? And if they feature the most rabid racists then deal with it. Again,

My suggestion is that if students feel this strongly about Robert E. Lee and the Confederate flag then they probably should stay out of the chapel. The school’s historical connection to Robert E. Lee is well documented and could not have been a surprise to its applicants. Again, the school does have a responsibility to ensure that all students feel safe and respected, but this list of demands largely falls short of its mark.

89 thoughts on “No Confederate Flags in Washington & Lee University’s Chapel

  1. William

    Kevin……..Don’t try a two face turn now. This is exactly what you have wanted and backed. First it was take the Confederate flag of government property, now it is colleges and public property. They will not stop until they have destroyed the right of Southerners to honor and celebrate their heritage. Where does it stop ? It stops t at the beginning of my property !!! I will fly whatever flag I care to fly and if it offends them or you, all I can say is……….Tough.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Mr. Richardson.

      Where does it stop ? It stops t at the beginning of my property !!! I will fly whatever flag I care to fly and if it offends them or you, all I can say is……….Tough.

      You have every right to honor your heritage in this way.

      Reply
    2. Michael Rodgers

      The answer to “Where does it stop?” was explained clearly by John Coski, as follows: “A suitably moderate position would recognize the Confederate flag as an American symbol with an inevitable place on the American landscape–without, however, allowing it to be displayed as a symbol of sovereignty.” This is the endgame.

      Reply
    3. Pat Young

      The only place it stops is at the First Amendment.

      Obviously the use of the flag will be challenged for as long as it stirs memories of slavery, and the rape, kidnapping, and torture of blacks. Those who chose to display the flag do so in the certain knowledge that that its use is offensive to many and they should not be surprised when that offense is manifested.

      Reply
  2. Pat Young

    “The school’s historical connection to Robert E. Lee is well documented and could not have been a surprise to its applicants.”

    So black students should not go there?

    Isn’t part the academic experience the challenging of unexamined verities, even a 150 year old tradition?

    During Robert E. Lee’s tenure as college president, Washington College barred black students from attending and this “tradition” continued until 1966.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      So black students should not go there?

      Come on, Pat. The school is named after Robert E. Lee.

      Isn’t part the academic experience the challenging of unexamined verities, even a 150 year old tradition?

      Of course students should challenge everything, but why does it always have to be in the form of a ban? Again, this is a college campus. I remember reading things in college that I found offensive and having to listen to visitors whose views I disagreed with. It seems to me that this is part of the college experience.

      During Robert E. Lee’s tenure as college president, Washington College barred black students from attending and this “tradition” continued until 1966.

      I am well aware of the college’s history.

      Reply
      1. Pat Young

        Perhaps because Lee and those who revered him barred their parents from the college/university.

        Anyway, you start by demanding a ban and negotiate down from there.

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          You start by doing your research before making demands that are largely inappropriate for a college campus.

          Reply
          1. Pat Young

            “Come on, Pat. The school is named after Robert E. Lee.”

            Naming a school after a principal defender of slavery does not create a cordon sanitaire preventing the descendents of slaves from criticizing symbols and actions they see as reinforcing their exclusion from civil society for more than a century and see as a not so subtle reminder that they may still not be welcome.

            Reply
            1. Kevin Levin Post author

              When did I suggest that students shouldn’t criticize symbols that they may see on occasion? Please don’t put words in my mouth.

              Reply
            2. Rob Baker

              I think it’s fair to point out that the school was named after R.E. Lee not only as a homage to a Confederate General. He was a great president to Washington College (now Washington & Lee University) in a time of great need. He got the school back on its feet, and advanced the curriculum. Plainly, he saved the institution. As far as race relations, he reportedly expelled students from the school for violent attacks on local black people and helped create black schools in the state.

              Are these paternalistic actions? Probably, nor do those actions excuse a lifetime of slave ownership. But can the absence of black students during his tenure really be attributed to him, or to the de jure and de facto segregation throughout the country?

              Reply
    2. Thomas S

      Yes, they should not go there.

      The school name was not changed since they arrived.

      Besides, they are law students and have no need to use Lee Chapel or to even visit the undergraduate campus.

      Blacks being barred from a college is hardly limited to W&L, or even the South. Women were not admitted to W&L until 1984. Jews were not admitted to many Northern bourgeois neighbourhoods until the 60s.

      Note also the attacks are aimed at Lee/Confederacy, as if Washington did not also own slaves (I think Lee just inherited them).

      I think we should demand an apology of everyone who flies the American flag for Vietnam, Hiroshima, the firebombing of Dresden, slavery, segregation, eugenics, wage slavery in the North, the genocide of the Indians, Iraq, etc.

      Reply
    3. Johnnie Parker

      So black students were barred from going to this university during Lee’s tenure as president……… would you please tell me which other white colleges they were allowed to attend? Did they attend any in the northern states? Seriously, I really would like to know, Pat Young.

      Reply
  3. Robert Moore

    I think this sort of thing is absurd. Frankly, for starters, W&L HAS distanced itself from “those four years”. Yet, the Lee Chapel is what it is. If W&L concedes to these “demands”, the next demand will be that the school remove the name of Lee altogether… and then remove the Lee family from the crypt. Can we only imagine what might be next? It’s simply ridiculous.

    While the university may, in fact, regret any ties it had (whatever they may be… can someone please clarify how W&L rivals other schools who can actually assess ties in monetary value to the advancement of their institutions?) to slavery, demanding an apology is without any real value. The university as an institution has its history, and people who lived in those times defined it according to those times. Again, based on the way we see things today, those who run it today may regret any role slavery had in the school’s history, but they need not apologize for the actions of others who lived in a different time. If apologies be the rule, I might as well begin apologizing to myself for the 17th century actions of my English ancestors against my Scottish ancestors.

    In short, you are correct about one particular remark… if it is so offensive, they simply need to remain out of the chapel.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      While the university may, in fact, regret any ties it had (whatever they may be… can someone please clarify how W&L rivals other schools who can actually assess ties in monetary value to the advancement of their institutions?) to slavery, demanding an apology is without any real value.

      I tend to agree with you, though I do believe that schools can acknowledge aspects of their pasts in ways that compliment their education mission. Brown University put together an exhibit and website on the school’s connection to slavery. Walk into the History Department at W&L and you will find some amazing historians who don’t mythologize Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy or the flag. It’s a wonderful institution that does plenty to acknowledge the richness of its past.

      Reply
    2. Michael Rodgers

      While the demands of “The Committee” do seem overbroad and poorly researched, I have no reason to believe that they won’t be reasonable, going forward. It’s not at all likely, in my opinion, that “the next demand will be that the school remove the name of Lee altogether.”
      Washington & Lee has an obligation to make Lee Chapel welcoming to today’s students. Likewise, today’s students should be expected to be reasonable when viewing historic, properly-interpreted displays. I’m sure that reason will prevail.

      Reply
      1. Kevin Levin Post author

        I have no reason to believe that they won’t be reasonable, going forward.

        Really? How is this a reasonable response by The Committee?

        If the school does not act by SEPTEMBER 1, 2014 we WILL engage in civil disobedience.

        This petition is an embarrassment.

        Reply
        1. Michael Rodgers

          The petition’s plan of demand, deadline and disobedience is unreasonable. I would not advise students to negotiate in this manner.

          Reply
  4. Pat Young

    Robert Moore wrote: ” Again, based on the way we see things today, those who run it today may regret any role slavery had in the school’s history, but they need not apologize for the actions of others who lived in a different time. If apologies be the rule, I might as well begin apologizing to myself for the 17th century actions of my English ancestors against my Scottish ancestors. ”

    The difference, of course is that you are not your ancestors but W&L is the same corporate entity that it was at the time of the Civil War. Its web page boasts of the continuity of the institution since 1749 and describes modern W&L as “Grounded in the timeless ideals of its legendary namesakes, George Washington and Robert E. Lee”

    In the “A Brief History” on W&L’s website, the school devotes as much space to the Lee years as to the next 100 years combined. Nowhere does the “A Brief History” mention slavery or segregation. The school’s involvement in human rights abuses is simply not acknowledged at all.

    There is a brief mention of the admission of the first women to the school but none on blacks.

    Robert, how can the school “take credit” for its “Traditions” and “History” and not be faulted for its slave and segregation past? The problem with admitting blacks to school is that they may demand an accounting from a previously unaccountable institution.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      In the “A Brief History” on W&L’s website, the school devotes as much space to the Lee years as to the next 100 years combined. Nowhere does the “A Brief History” mention slavery or segregation. The school’s involvement in human rights abuses is simply not acknowledged at all.

      Shouldn’t we consider the entire community when assessing whether a school like W&L has acknowledged its past? Again, I would suggest spending some time on department and faculty websites to get a taste of how this community views its past, present and future. Why are we assuming that the school ignores its past based on a “brief history” on its website? Seems to me you are reaching here, Pat.

      Reply
      1. Pat Young

        I don’t think that they are asking each faculty member to apologize, Kevin. They are asking the corporate entity, which is legally a “person”, which was engaged in supporting slavery and segregation, to apologize. I would think that were the school to set up a “Truth Commission” that would be one of its recommendations.

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          In this context, the distinction between faculty/staff/students and the corporate entity makes little sense. Seems to me the students are assessing the state of their campus in connection to its Confederate past. The petition makes it sound as if W&L is somehow mired in a world of Lee mythology. Anyone who has spent any time on campus with students and faculty knows that this is simply not the case. These students have every right to ask for a formal apology, but their demand that flags in a museum and certain groups should not be allowed to hold meetings makes little sense to me.

          Reply
        2. Thomas S

          Okay, let’s start with a Truth Commission across the United States for university cooperation with the Central Intelligence Agency.

          Then, we can look at everyone who does not pay a liveable wage or who hires illegal aliens.

          Then, we can look at corrupt university presidents and deans who increase their pay in huge chunks and jack up tuition 10% a year ***while decreasing the pay of faculty and number of permanent positions***.

          Then, I want to see transparency in the involvement of large financial institutions in the affairs of Boards of Trustees.

          That’s real reformism, not telling a group of people their ancestors are evil.

          Reply
  5. Robert Moore

    Pat,

    Let’s start with this…

    “The difference, of course is that you are not your ancestors but W&L is the same corporate entity that it was at the time of the Civil War.”

    And they are not their ancestors… so what’s your point?

    Fine, I’ll use another analogy… the Shenandoah National Park and its creation at the expense of some of my ancestors. The park even acknowledges the sore point… but it the park still exists and it certainly hasn’t given back ancestral property. Am I offended? No. It’s history. In fact, I even go there, and enjoy what it has to offer (including the exhibits detailing the dislocation of people), despite what exists in its past, and the past of my people.

    Want another ancestral analogy? Perhaps native American?

    Look, the school bears the name Washington and Lee. Whether people like it or not, there is value in the legacy of both men, and the school (rightfully) should take pride in that. If an applicant finds the legacy of a school offensive simply because of the name, then don’t apply. At what point shall we eliminate the name altogether, because of perceptions of a few, according to what they find offensive? I ask… if the name of the school (and the complexities of its past) offend a person… the same person who applied and was accepted to the school… then perhaps its time for a transfer. When does it become a right to turn that institution (including what good we can take from its legacy) on its ear? Should it be acceptable to “throw out the baby with the bath water”? Should this sort of activism guide us in all things? No… it should not. What’s next? Should we expand this to the campus of VMI and begin dismantling many things there that remind us of the Civil War? Move along…

    To be honest, I’d like to see exactly how W&L is being tied to slavery. At this point, the discussion can truly expand.

    With the exception of their demand that there be formal acknowledgement of MLK Day (which surprises me if, in fact, W&L does not recognize it, in some way) you’re making this into something that isn’t even listed in the demands. It’s Kevin’s post, but I’d recommend that you become more focused on what is at the heart of the post.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      With the exception of their demand that there be formal acknowledgement of MLK Day (which surprises me if, in fact, W&L does not recognize it, in some way) you’re making this into something that isn’t even listed in the demands.

      I believe the Law School takes off, but not the rest of the campus. It is reasonable to ask for consistency throughout the school. Beyond that this petition rings hollow to me.

      Reply
      1. Pat Young

        I wrote: “The difference, of course is that you are not your ancestors but W&L is the same corporate entity that it was at the time of the Civil War.”

        And Robert replied: “And they are not their ancestors… so what’s your point? ”

        My point is that this is the same school, the same entity as it was in the 1800s. I don’t claim to be my ancestors, but W&L claims to be the school that existed at that time. That is the difference. If GM manufactures a car that has a defect that causes an accident and then changes CEOs, it cannot claim that it is not responsible because the old CEO is gone and the new CEO has introduced a culture of safety. Corporations continue long after the people working at them leave.

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          But based on what are we determining that W&L has not atoned for its past transgressions? The students make claims about the current racial climate on campus, though they provide no details beyond the issue of the Confederate flag at Lee Chapel. Perhaps there are issues that need to be addressed and I certainly hope that they will be. What is this group of students doing to address these racial problems? Removing Confederate flags from a historical site and museum certainly doesn’t go very far (if at all) in that direction.

          Reply
          1. Pat Young

            They are students. They are addressing what they are addressing.

            It is for the broader university community to take up a discussion of this, or ignore it.

            The school is less than half a century from graduating its first black students post-segregation. The overwhelming bulk of its alumni are white, as are its students.

            I don’t know if it is still that way, but W&L used to be called “White and Loaded.”

            50 years ago it would have been inconceivable that Lexington would have stopped displaying Confederate flags. Had it been suggested, many would have reacted that if you did not like the flags, why move to the city of shrines to Lee and Jackson.

            These black students live at W&L. They are trying to alter its “traditions” to make other students of similar backgrounds feel welcome enough at W&L to go there to pursue their studies. If the students who wrote the letter feel that some of the “traditions” effectively turn away prospective black students, who am I to say they are wrong?

            Let me ask folks here, in all honesty, do you not believe that the school has fewer black students than it might have because of its white supremacist symbolism?

            Reply
            1. Kevin Levin Post author

              These black students live at W&L. They are trying to alter its “traditions” to make other students of similar backgrounds feel welcome enough at W&L to go there to pursue their studies. If the students who wrote the letter feel that some of the “traditions” effectively turn away prospective black students, who am I to say they are wrong?

              Pat, do me a favor and remember who you are responding to here. No one has been more active online in pointing out the hurtful and damaging practices associated with the Civil War that can still be found throughout the country. I get it, but we are talking about an institution of higher learning. Calling for a ban on Confederate/Southern heritage organizations from campus is tantamount to surrender. It’s basically an admission that these students can’t muster ideas to counter what they perceive as offensive. As far as I know there are two Confederate flags that hang over the recumbent statue of Lee and there are a few on display below as part of an exhibit. No flag flies atop the building or outside the door. I suspect that there is no intent to offend anyone.

              Are certain prospective students being turned away specifically because of the chapel? I don’t know, but I highly doubt it.

              Reply
              1. James Harrigan

                Are certain prospective students being turned away specifically because of the chapel? I don’t know, but I highly doubt it.
                Kevin, W&L has tremendous difficulty recruiting African American students (I know this from talking to friends who work there). Whether it is the chapel per se, or just the (correct) perception that the culture of the school and town are very congenial to neoconfederate nostralgia, is a distinction without a difference.

                Reply
                1. Kevin Levin Post author

                  W&L has tremendous difficulty recruiting African American students (I know this from talking to friends who work there).

                  I don’t doubt that for a second and I am not suggesting that school administrators should not be looking for ways to address the issue. You are also right to point out that W&L is located in a neoconfederate-friendly community, though some would dispute that given recent steps by the city to limit the display of the Confederate flag. But that is just the point, the Confederate flag isn’t on display everywhere on campus. It is located in one building for a very specific reason. To reduce the issue to this and events that involve the voicing of ideas that some may find problematic is ridiculous for a college campus.

                  Reply
  6. Pat Young

    Corporate entities are always different from individuals who work at or patronize the entity. That is their legal nature as “persons”.

    I knew Nora V. Demleitner, the dean named in the letter. She was my dean at Hofstra during her tenure there. I don’t think that anyone would view her as tied in to the “traditions” of slavery and segregation at the school. Not only is she not a Virginian by birth, she is a German immigrant.

    No one is asking Nora to apologize, and she obviously had nothing to do with the anti-black past of the university. Some quite likely deplore it, if they are aware of it at allThe group that circulated the letter is asking for her Nora’s to take action on behalf of or to influence the corporate entity, not on her own behalf.

    Reply
  7. Robert Moore

    “I believe the Law School takes off, but not the rest of the campus.”

    I agree in that.

    I’m trying to remember, exactly… but can’t recall that we (the three state universities I attended) took off for the day. Nonetheless, since it is a private institution, I think they have more flexibility in that.

    Reply
  8. Robert Moore

    “My point is that this is the same school, the same entity as it was in the 1800s. I don’t claim to be my ancestors, but W&L claims to be the school that existed at that time. That is the difference. If GM manufactures a car that has a defect that causes an accident and then changes CEOs, it cannot claim that it is not responsible because the old CEO is gone and the new CEO has introduced a culture of safety. Corporations continue long after the people working at them leave.”

    Pat,

    Also… “My point is that this is the same school, the same entity as it was in the 1800s.”

    Tell us how, exactly. Give us a quote from their website or catalog.

    You ignored my Shenandoah National Park analogy… and my position remains unchanged. With the exception of the MLK part, the “demands” are absurd.

    Reply
  9. Pat Young

    Here is the school’s “Brief History” contained on its web site. It is clearly the same corporate entity that it was in the 1800s. At no point in the history does it state that the modern school has no legal relationship with the school that existed at that time:

    Washington and Lee is a small, private, liberal arts university nestled between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains in Lexington, Va. It is the ninth oldest institution of higher learning in the nation.

    In 1749, Scotch-Irish pioneers who had migrated deep into the Valley of Virginia founded a small classical school called Augusta Academy, some 20 miles north of what is now Lexington. In 1776, the trustees, fired by patriotism, changed the name of the school to Liberty Hall.

    Four years later the school was moved to the vicinity of Lexington, where in 1782 it was chartered as Liberty Hall Academy by the Virginia legislature and empowered to grant degrees. A limestone building, erected in 1793 on the crest of a ridge overlooking Lexington, burned in 1803, though its ruins are preserved today as a symbol of the institution’s honored past.

    In 1796, George Washington saved the struggling Liberty Hall Academy when he gave the school its first major endowment–$20,000 worth of James River Canal stock. The trustees promptly changed the name of the school to Washington Academy as an expression of their gratitude.

    In 1813, the name of the academy was changed to Washington College. By then, the college was established on its present grounds in Lexington.

    General Robert E. Lee reluctantly accepted the position of president of the College in 1865. Because of his leadership of the Confederate army, Lee worried he “might draw upon the College a feeling of hostility,” but also added that “I think it the duty of every citizen in the present condition of the Country, to do all in his power to aid in the restoration of peace and harmony.”

    After Lee’s death in 1870, the trustees voted to change the name from Washington College to Washington and Lee University. Once an all-male institution, Washington and Lee first admitted women to its law school in 1972. The first undergraduate women matriculated in 1985. Since then, Washington and Lee has flourished.

    Washington and Lee University observed its 250th Anniversary with a year-long, national celebration during the 1998-99 academic year.

    Reply
  10. Pat Young

    Robert wrote: “Look, the school bears the name Washington and Lee. Whether people like it or not, there is value in the legacy of both men, and the school (rightfully) should take pride in that. If an applicant finds the legacy of a school offensive simply because of the name, then don’t apply. ”

    Many schools have changed the names of their sports teams because they were seen as offensive and interfering with diversity goals. I don’t not know if the name of W&L leads black students not to apply, but if it does, then students may rightfully ask if a name change is in order. The school has already changed its name many times in the past, so it would not be unprecedented. This may be an idea you want to bring to The Committee’s attention.

    Reply
  11. Robert Moore

    … and there is nothing that I can see that is wrong with that description, nor does it suggest, in active, daily operation that it IS, in activities, the same institution that existed in the 1800s. The reality is, it does nothing more than to identify their origins. So what? What makes it any different from any other institutions developed before 1861-1865?

    You are really stretching much to try and make an argument, Pat.

    Reply
  12. Eric A. Jacobson

    To quote from the Committee:

    “The time has come for us, as students, to ask that the University hold itself responsible for its past and present dishonorable conduct and for the racist and dishonorable conduct of Robert E. Lee.”

    This group of students can say and claim what they wish, but this statement is just ridiculous. The current university trustees are NOT responsible for what Lee did or did not do and the idea of present “dishonorable” conduct is entirely subjective. Taking this a step further, if I go to Brigham Young University might I get a little exposure to Mormonism? As a Lutheran Protestant, shall I demand removal of all things Mormon simply because I don’t like it? Conduct like this from a group achieves little expect to make themselves feel good at the expense of others. That is not how a free society should operate. But most troubling is this:

    “If the school does not act by SEPTEMBER 1, 2014 we WILL engage in civil disobedience.”

    So if they don’t get their way they proceed to threaten the school. That’s really a productive tactic. This is so sad on many levels. Honestly, I hope the trustees respond appropriately, but do not bow to any of these demands.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      One of the things graduating seniors learn at my school is that they should expect a good deal of anti-Israel sentiment on many of the campuses they will attend across the country. I tell them that they should welcome it and do their best to meet it with a careful formulation of their own ideas as individuals or as a part of a campus organization. This is what a college campus is supposed to facilitate in my view.

      To call for a ban on Confederate Heritage groups from campus is nothing less than a surrender to ideas that are deemed to be problematic. The demand to remove all flags in the chapel is reckless and the demand for an apology from the school lacks imagination. That this petition comes from law students is embarrassing.

      Reply
  13. James Harrigan

    I’m with Pat and the law students on this, and I’m surprised at your dismissive attitude, Kevin.
    Kevin, a view that you have expressed many times on your blog is, to praphrase, that “the community should decide how to commemorate their history”. These law students are part of the W&L community, and they are trying to change minds through argument and protest. If I worked or studied at W&L I’d be out there supporting them. I think what they are doing is wholly admirable, and I hope they are succesful in getting W&L to distance itself from neoconfederate nostalgia and worship of the Marble Man. I think the idea of an “apology” for past institutional sins is a bit off point, but the implicit demand that the college be open about its past as a pillar of upholding white supremacy in Virginia is something I applaud.
    As the students say, W&L is a pilgrimage site for neoconfederate and Lost Cause nostalgists (Tony Horwitz’ Confederates in the Attic is eloquent on this point). The university should be discouraging, not enabling, such nonsense.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Of course, the school community should decide for itself what to do about these issues. I am simply offering my opinion, which is what I’ve always done on this blog.

      … and I hope they are succesful in getting W&L todistance itself from neoconfederate nostalgia and worship of the Marble Man.

      What “neoconfederate nostalgia” are you referring to here? Robert E. Lee’s burial site on campus? The presence one a year of Confederate heritage folks on campus? The display of Confederate flags as part of a museum exhibit or over the recumbent statue of Lee?

      I think the idea of an “apology” for past institutional sins is a bit off point, but the implicit demand that the college be open about its past as a pillar of upholding white supremacy in Virginia is something I applaud.

      You are going to have to educate me. In what ways is the college not open about its past? Let’s move beyond a website on this if we can. I am certainly not familiar with what, if anything, the school community has done regarding these issues in recent years. Thanks.

      Reply
  14. James Harrigan

    What “neoconfederate nostalgia” are you referring to here? Robert E. Lee’s burial site on campus? The presence once a year of Confederate heritage folks on campus? The display of Confederate flags as part of a museum exhibit or over the recumbent statue of Lee? Yes, this is exactly what I mean, Kevin. I’m not proposing that they disinter Lee, but I support the idea of removing the flags flying over his grave, which I regard as a much more politically and racially loaded display than putting them in a museum exhibit. I don’t know to what extent the university welcomes or facilitates the presence of “Confederate heritage folks” on campus, but if they do, they shouldn’t.
    In what ways is the college not open about its past? …. I am certainly not familiar with what, if anything, the school community has done regarding these issues in recent years. I don’t know either Kevin, I’d be curious to know what more well-informed people have to say about this.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I don’t know to what extent the university welcomes or facilitates the presence of “Confederate heritage folks” on campus, but if they do, they shouldn’t.

      We apparently have very different ideas of the purpose of college campuses.

      Reply
      1. James Harrigan

        We apparently have very different ideas of the purpose of college campuses.

        Maybe, maybe not. I draw a distinction between banning neoconfederates from campus (which I would not support) and welcoming them (which I oppose – though as I noted above, I don’t know what the status quo is).

        There is an analogy here to the recent controversy over Brandeis rescinding their offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Those opposed to giving Ali an honorary degree were not suggesting that she be barred from campus, and in fact she was invited to come talk.

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          Students are free to protest the presence of any visitor they deem to be worth protesting. College campuses should be places where a wide range of ideas are voiced and debated.

          As I pointed out in the post, Lee-Jackson Day events at the chapel have featured historians such as Gary Gallagher, Robert Krick, James I. Robertson and William C. Davis. Students (black and white) should be sitting in the front rows when historians of this caliber give talks. Someone familiar with these events is going to have to fill us in on whether the school engages in an overt act of celebration of the Confederacy. Somehow I doubt it.

          Reply
    2. Pat Young

      Kevin, to call the Lee Chapel simply “Robert E. Lee’s burial site” does not do it justice. It is not simply a grave or a niche in a masoleum. It was created as a pilgrimage site. It is a prime stop on the Lost Cause memory tour. Not a big deal unless you are a black kid thinking of going there who realizes during a visit that the school is built around a Confederate reliquery.

      Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          What does it say about me that I am not turned off by the Lee Chapel? Is the presence of the chapel on campus a problem for white and black students. We seem to be proceeding now as if it is.

          Reply
          1. James Harrigan

            What does it say about me that I am not turned off by the Lee Chapel?

            why, it says that you are a neoconfederate white supremacist racist bad person, of course!

            all kidding aside, some people are more bothered by stuff like the Lee Chapel than others. But it is undeniable that the white supremacist past of W&L (and my own employer UVa, I might add) is a significant challenge in recruiting students and faculty (I could share many anecdotes to illustrate this).

            Reply
            1. Kevin Levin Post author

              But it is undeniable that the white supremacist past of W&L (and my own employer UVa, I might add) is a significant challenge in recruiting students and faculty (I could share many anecdotes to illustrate this).

              Look, I lived in Charlottesville for 11 years and I know the history. Of course, both of these institutions must deal with a legacy of segregation. I have never denied such an obvious point. The presence of the Lee Chapel on the W&L campus, in Lexington, creates a number of unique challenges. We seem to be proceeding here as if school administrators, faculty, and students are unaware of this fact.

              I just don’t see how what I consider to be a poorly written and conceived petition helps to move the community forward on this front.

              Reply
      1. Kevin Levin Post author

        You are absolutely right. It is a “pilgrimage site” for a relatively small number of people and a legitimate historic destination for many, many more people from around the country and beyond. It does create some unique challenges for W&L, but why are we jumping to the conclusion that they have failed simply because there are two flags in the chapel and museum and an event that takes place once a year?

        Have you ever visited the museum exhibit at the Lee Chapel? You should. It places the site and everything included into proper historical context.

        Not a big deal unless you are a black kid thinking of going there who realizes during a visit that the school is built around a Confederate reliquery.

        Why must we categorize every “black kid” as a victim when confronted by memory of the Confederacy? With all due respect, it’s insulting. A potential black or white student is certainly capable of approaching these sites in any number of ways.

        Reply
          1. Kevin Levin Post author

            Sorry, but certainly sounded that way.

            The assumption seems to be that the African-American (and broader) community at W&L views the school’s relationship to its Confederate past as dominant when it comes to assessing issues of race. That may be the case, but someone is going to have to provide evidence beyond this petition.

            Reply
      2. Eric A. Jacobson

        Pat,

        I find your posts often very thoughtful and insightful, but this one just smacks of victim mentality. Maybe I’m being obtuse, but if a “black kid” who visits the burial site is bothered, then perhaps that is EXACTLY what should be happening. Life isn’t about sanitizing everything to make everybody feel good. If someone who is black visits the site and thinks about what Lee was, what he fought for, and what he did after the war, perhaps such an experience puts into better context what this country went through during the war and in the 150 years since. R. E. Lee fought for the Confederacy and led troops under that flag, and to strip it away and make everybody ever so comfortable diminishes the entire historical narrative, in my opinion.

        Gosh, I hate to make this comparison, but the Holocaust Museum has Nazi memorabilia on display. So should that all be removed as well?

        Reply
        1. James Harrigan

          I hate to make this comparison, but the Holocaust Museum has Nazi memorabilia on display. So should that all be removed as well?

          Eric, context is all. As Pat has explained, the Lee Chapel, Confederate flags and all, is a shrine to Lost Cause nostalgia. As such, it is a contemporary celebration of an ideology that many of us, black or otherwise, find repugnant. It is not a museum.

          The Holocaust Museum is a museum, not a shrine to Nazi ideology – and that is a distinction that makes all the difference. If the Nazi flag were flying over the graves of World War 2 German War dead, there would rightly be an outcry (and no, I’m not comparing the Confederacy to Nazi Germany, just responding to your question).

          As for those who say that Lee merely “served his state”, I would just observe that what he served was the white secessionist government of his state – he was actively fighting against the wishes and interests of white Unionist and black Virginians. And after the war, as others have observed, he actively supported white supremacy in Virginia.

          Reply
          1. Eric A. Jacobson

            “As Pat has explained, the Lee Chapel, Confederate flags and all, is a shrine to Lost Cause nostalgia.”

            I simply disagree with this assessment. It may well have been that, as Stuart pointed out, but I don’t see that being the case any longer. That being said, it strikes me that the Committee is more interested in battering the past than dealing with the present.

            Reply
          2. Rob Baker

            But in the ever so important context of the museum at W&L, Lee served a five year, very productive tenure as President of a college. In those five years, he was not a slave owner, or a Confederate General; he was a reformer that modernized and saved that college. The museum and the university includes the narrative of slavery unapologetically.

            Reply
            1. Kevin Levin Post author

              The museum and the university includes the narrative of slavery unapologetically.

              That’s right. No one is hiding anything at W&L.

              Reply
      3. Rob Baker

        The chapel was not created as a “pilgrimage” site, it has become one. Lee requested the chapel because it suited his idea for the college. It was finished in 1868, it housed his office, the treasurer’s office and the student center during that time. When Lee died, he was buried in the vault beneath the chapel. After his death in 1870, the school added his name to the title. The chapel became a museum in the 1920s, it houses Washington and Lee items.

        The University continues to use the chapel today, its purpose being “support of the University’s educational mission and administrative needs.” Graduation commencement and other school activities are still held in the chapel.

        http://www2.wlu.edu/x56826.xml

        Is it a pilgrimage site for some? Absolutely. But that does not render its other traditional purposes moot. It is a part of the large contextual picture of Lee’s triumphs as a University president, and his vision for the school’s prosperity.

        Reply
  15. Christine Smith

    I am assuming that these flags they want removed are those which hang at the four corners of the alcove where the recumbant sculpture of Lee resides. If I remember correctly, and it has been some time since I visited the chapel, they are battle flags with battle ribbons on them. The Lee Chapel is a beautiful tribute to a man who served his country and his state, and the flags should stay. Is it a non-denomination chapel, or is it Episcopalian, as was Lee? If it is the latter, and the church has any control over it, the protestors will have to deal with that issue in order to do anything. I hope W&L won’t give in to this particular part of the demand.

    Reply
  16. Stuart W. Sanders

    As a native of Lexington, Virginia, with a past career in Civil War battlefield preservation, I’ve followed this discussion with interest. In fact, I cut my teeth in the public history field as a docent at the Lee Chapel. I worked there immediately after the airing of Ken Burns’ PBS series, which was arguably the heyday of Civil War heritage tourism.

    Because of the broad appeal of Burns’s film, the visitation at the Chapel at that time was much greater than neo-Confederate apologists (although I did meet a 6’6” biker who had Lee on Traveler tattooed across his entire back, but that’s another story for another time).

    The Chapel needs to be examined within the broader context of Lexington as a whole—Burns’s film created a wide range of Civil War enthusiasts who came to that community in order to learn more about Lee, Jackson, and the overall Civil War. Many visitors from across the nation spent days touring Civil War sites in the entire Shenandoah Valley; the Lee Chapel was just one stop among many. Were there visitors with a neo-Confederate slant who espoused the Lost Cause? Of course. However, I was fortunate to interact with folks from all over the nation who were interested in the Civil War as a whole and who were there to do more than worship at the feet of General Lee.

    According to current standards, the site’s interpretation at the time was limited. But, (as I recall) it did not have a neo-Confederate slant. In fact, it was more focused on interpreting the Lee family’s connection to the Custis family and Lee’s role as president of the college. Without Lee, the college probably wouldn’t exist today, and that was the focus of the exhibit space. Did it discuss Lee and slavery? Probably not, but it also didn’t delve too much into Lee’s military career, either. While I haven’t toured the Chapel in years, I’m guessing that the new museum (which was redone about ten years ago, maybe?) tells a broader story.

    While the school’s name inexorably links the college to Lee and the Civil War, W&L has spent the last twenty years or so moving away from connections to the Old South. An institution does not become one of the top liberal arts schools in the nation by embracing moonlight and magnolias. Frankly, I think the students’ petition is somewhat misleading by asking the school to “remove all confederate [sic] flags from its property, including those flags located within Lee Chapel.” This makes it sound like there are several rebel banners flying across campus, which certainly isn’t the case. It’s a modern college campus, not a bastion of the Lost Cause.

    It’s also important to remember that the Chapel was not built to honor Lee. It was not constructed to be a post-war “pilgrimage site.” When Lee was president, he had it constructed so that students would have a place for chapel services. After his death, he was buried downstairs, the recumbent statue was added upstairs, his office was preserved, and original Confederate flags were placed hanging over the statue. Did it then become a shrine to the Lost Cause? Yes, I think so. But, since then the role of the Chapel has changed. When the original flags were removed several years ago they were replaced by reproductions. Why? Because the Chapel is a now a museum located on the campus of a top-tier educational institution.

    Instead of removing the flags, interpret them. Use the setting to teach students and the broader community about Civil War memory, Lee and race, slavery, and more. Continue to use site as a tool for a broader discussion. George Washington was a slave owner. A statue of Washington sits atop one of the most prominent buildings on campus. Should the statue be removed? Should the school’s name be changed? Or should Washington’s life be fully examined to help students understand the complexities of American history?

    I fully admit that I approach this topic with my own nostalgic baggage. As a former faculty-brat who spent hours wandering all of Lexington’s historic sites, I have a bias. However, it is not a neo-Confederate bias. Instead, I understand the importance of place and the educational opportunities that these sites can provide. Although my own research and writing interests eventually wandered over the mountains to the Bluegrass and the Western Theater, it was time spent in the basement of the Lee Chapel, talking with Ohioans, Californians, Georgians, Pennsylvanians, etc., that started me on my own journey to try to understand the Civil War.

    And now about that tattoo of Traveler . . .

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Stuart,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to comment on this issue. You add an important perspective and I find myself in agreement with just about everything you said.

      Reply
    2. Rob Baker

      Very well said.

      I visited the chapel last in 2011. Although I do remember there being some focus on his generalship, I recall that the majority of the focus in the museum was on his tenure as President and his daily life. I remember the shop as having numerous source materials on both Lee and Washington and I can’t recall anything being draped in the Confederate flag in the shop.

      Reply
  17. Michael Lynch

    Maybe it’s just me, but I’m a little perplexed that anyone would be either surprised or disgruntled to find Confederate-related emblems in a historic setting at a university named in part for Robert E. Lee, presided over at one time by Robert E. Lee, and housing the burial place of Robert E. Lee.

    I mean, holy cow, guys.

    Reply
      1. Michael Lynch

        Well, Pat, I’d have to say this is the first time anybody has ever implied that I’m a racist boor.

        On my blog and in comments on other blogs, I’ve never been shy about criticizing the use of the Confederate flag when it’s done without regard to the feelings of others. My stance has always been that the basic human imperative to avoid hurting, offending, intimidating, or frightening another person takes priority in such situations. And I think every university has a responsibility to create an environment where students of all backgrounds feel comfortable.

        What I’m saying is not that people have no right to be offended by the sight of the flag, but that its presence in the particular context of Lee Chapel is neither unexpected nor malicious. We’re not talking about a Confederate flag flying from a pole on the campus green. We’re talking about flags inside a historic building constructed at Lee’s behest, *around his burial monument*, on the campus of a university where his work as administrator was crucial to the institution’s survival.

        One is probably going to see a Confederate emblem or two in the vicinity of Robert E. Lee’s tomb. That’s all I’m saying.

        Reply
        1. Pat Young

          “Well, Pat, I’d have to say this is the first time anybody has ever implied that I’m a racist boor.”

          I did not imply that, but I do wonder why the fact that the university has Confederate associations should influence how black students there react to ways they see it impacting on the university today.

          Reply
          1. Michael Lynch

            If it’s significantly impacting the university today, then that’s a perfectly legitimate discussion for the university community to have. All I’m saying is that there’s also a perfectly legitimate case to be made that the presence of Confederate flags inside Lee Chapel is neither inappropriate nor unexpected.

            I realize that many people are offended or uneasy by the sight of the flag, and their feelings are perfectly valid. But, as Kevin says, context is key when it comes to the Confederate flag, and in the context of a historic building containing the tomb of Robert E. Lee, I don’t think it’s out of place.

            No university should tolerate a general atmosphere on campus where students of any background feel unwelcome or intimidated. What I’m saying is that I don’t think the presence of Confederate flags at Lee’s tomb would constitute such an atmosphere. It’s not that the school’s historic ties to Lee give the university a pass to display the Confederate flag whenever and wherever they want. My point is that the particular site of Lee Chapel is the sort of place where one could reasonably expect to see Confederate emblems displayed. The graves of Confederate soldiers and historic structures associated with Confederate memory are two settings where the flag’s presence is generally accepted by many people; Lee Chapel is both.

            In such a case, I think dialogue over the flag’s connotations and associations is wonderful. A demand for removal with a deadline, on the other hand, doesn’t really take into account the circumstances of that particular setting.

            Reply
            1. Rob Baker

              Taking the president of the university’s letter into account, it appears the W&L is constantly focused on the betterment of the university and is proactive in that testament.

              Reply
  18. James Knox

    Get rid of the name “Lee” in Washington & Lee? How uninformed, how unenlightened is that? Lee was extremely reluctant to break away from the United States when he did, but Virginia was his “country” at the time, the great American country was still in “chrysalis” stage, before going through the incredible ordeal, necessary as it was, of the War Between the States, only reaching all glory, fructified by the terrible ordeal of death and destruction to become the greatest country on earth that it is today, steadily for blacks, hispanics, asians as well as for whites – and, as such, Robert E. Lee is a tragic hero in the “creational” events of our history, our United States of America, and only the shallow and uninformed view would fail to see that he is to be remembered, like other great leaders, founders, the sinew, the superstructure in the formative period of our American history. Slavery is an abomination, world wide, incredible that with our great Declaration of Independence, that blacks were not included, but the point is that African-Americans were included after this cataclismic war between the states, and now on a level playing field with all Americans [as level as we can make it so far], of all colors, ethnicity and beliefs, so let us all be a model now for all the world that continues to destroy one another over idealogy, religious affiliation, ethnicity, real or imagined, we truly are the beacon, the model, the ideal (though still a “work in progress,” thank you). Amen

    Reply
    1. The other Susan

      Since the students’ demands were aired in public, hundreds of people across the country have weighed in. Many of their comments run along these lines: The students are ignorant of history and Lee’s heroism; the students were not slaves, so they should get over it; the students should find a more modern-day cause to champion, such as human trafficking; seeking to diminish Lee’s stature is akin to asking a Christian school to denounce Jesus; and the protesting students not only don’t belong at Washington and Lee, they ought to vacate the South entirely — just what did they expect in attending a school named after a Confederate general?

      We must not be weighing in the the proper places, all these comments are against the students.

      If this person’s comment is correct and people really see Lee as a god and not a human capable of huge errors in judgement, then no wonder people are having trouble getting their head around the idea that slavery is bad.

      I’m sure students expect a school named Washington and Lee to convert them to neo confederatisum about as much as a patient checking into Hollywood Presbyterian hospital expects to become a Christian after having his appendix removed.

      Reply
  19. l collingwood

    why do we have to apologize for our ancestors? the past is the past. we all want a good edu. every white person of power owned slaves back then. north and south. the whites of the north benefited from the slaves labor in the south. why isn’t anyone demanding that the tribe leaders in africa that sold slaves issue and apology for selling slaves? or that that the factory owners in the north apologize for all of the money they made off of the slave labor in the south? the past is the past. lets move on and show the world that anyone who is american is awesome? and beyond the issues of the past. from whatever continent. everyone should strive for the best. no matter what. america is about freedom. america is about the future. don’t waste time on past issues. work towards the future. the betterment of all humans. move on. everyone should prove themselves. every day. no one can change the past. no one can re write history. lets just get better as we go. and that has nothing to do with what has been done. america is about what will be done. lets just move on and be the best country that we can be. don’t ever second guess yourself. don’t ever devalue yourself. take advantage of the edu. available. strive no matter who you are or where you came from. spoken from a military person.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      why do we have to apologize for our ancestors?

      Who is asking you to apologize for your ancestors?

      Reply
  20. l collingwood

    every african american. history is history. lets move foreword. i have worked and served in the company of many of african americans. we are all one in this nation. and if anyone if going to progress this nation it is the military. and the military is comprised of many many minorities. not just african americans. but i have never met one african american in the military that had a problem with some university’s name. so go ahead and get a group of new lawyers that want to make a name for themselves. come up with yet another thing to bitch about. waste a bunch of money. and in the end realize that you can’t change history. but you can move forward. we are one. we need to stay as one. we are americans. period.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      It seems to me that this is not about changing the past; rather it’s about changing how that past is remembered by a specific institution?

      Reply
  21. l collingwood

    i didn’t answer your question. i have nothing to do with my ancestors. i didn’t know them and i never will. i do know that i am my own person and that i believe in this country and the people in it. no matter what their color is. i also value my rights as a citizen. and i will stand up for them if need be. i am all for the future. and i am all for americans progressing through education. not through wasting time and money because of a disagreement from the past. washington and lee would not even be here had history not taken the course it did. along with many other historical places. i hope that we all can just value what we have and make the best of it.

    Reply
  22. l collingwood

    you are correct, kevin. we need not rewrite history. slavery is wrong. we know that now. let’s just move forward.

    Reply
    1. The other Susan

      Problem is collingwood is that we are trying to move forward, but there are still people who haven’t figured out that slavery is wrong yet. If you don’t believe me, just stick around for a bit, I’m sure someone will be along shortly saying that slavery wasn’t that bad bla bla bla.

      Reply
      1. l collingwood

        stick around for a bit? really? i was born here. i have never met a single sole here or elsewhere in the south – and i have traveled a bit – that ever promoted slavery. ever. i have never met a single person that thought that “slavery wasn’t that bad.” and i was not born yesterday either.

        Reply
  23. Bryan Cheeseboro

    l collingwood,
    With all of your talk of moving forward and moving on, you certainly looked back when you said “washington and lee would not even be here had history not taken the course it did.” Why is it OK for you to look back and no one else?

    Reply
  24. Bob

    After decades of racial strife, I think that we have finally arrived at a loose consensus about race in America, and I don’t think that people want that tampered with. That’s not to say that it’s all sweetness and light, but I think that most people see that things have gotten a lot better, and they enjoy the fact that people of different races are getting along.

    As for the demands of these students, I think that if Southern whites can revere Abraham Lincoln, after all of the things that were done to the South in pursuit of Lincoln’s policies, then these students can learn to accept Robert E. Lee.

    Reply
  25. l collingwood

    i am always sorry to hear about anyone, especially young people, doing things that only divide americans even more. slavery was wrong and a terrible thing. and yes, it was not that long ago that it happened here. we all have choices in life. we can choose to feel hurt and anger from the way our ancestors were treated. we can choose to carry the burden of shame because of how our ancestors treated others. we can also choose to accept the past, good and bad, and not repeat the bad. we can work towards unity and not dividing the people of this county. if african americans are not proud of this country then why are so many volunteering their lives to fight for it in the armed services? another choice.

    Reply

Join the Conversation