What Should Washington and Lee University Do?

It is unlikely that the general public will hear much more regarding the list of demands made by a small group of black law students at W&L University about their school’s connection to the history of slavery and the Confederate memory. My hope is that the administration and student body will arrive at a resolution that benefits the entire school community and the surrounding community as well.

Regardless of the details, the agreement should have an educational component at its core. I recommend that students and administrators consider following in the footsteps of the University of Virginia, which recently established a President’s Commission on the close connection between slavery and the university.  There isn’t much on the website, but it does outline a wide range of activities that might be appropriate for W&L.

The university can’t and shouldn’t erase its past, but it can find creative ways to address it head on and in a way that adds to the intellectual and cultural life of the campus.

25 comments… add one
  • Theodore C. DeLaney May 15, 2014 @ 12:23

    Nonetheless, an ethos about slavery began developing with the creation of the American republic. Many northerners and some southerners (including Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin) had grave misgivings about the paradox of slaveholding and the principles of the new republic. Thomas Jefferson (Notes on the State of Virginia) worried that the brutality of slave control set a poor example for white children. He did not emancipate his slaves, but some of his contemporaries did. Robert Carter emancipated more than 300 slaves in eastern Virginia in 1790 Nineteenth century Americans were also millennialists who maintained that adherence to certain Christian principles would transform the Republic into a new Israel–“a city set upon a hill.” Northern abolitionists and southern religious leaders had serious concerns. Abolitionists viewed slavery as an evil, although there were no biblical sanctions against it. On the other hand, many southern ministers warned that if slavery were to persist, it had the be the best form of slavery the world had ever seen. These southern divines were uncomfortable with the division of slave families by sale. Surely, should have been a cause for moral concern. Gosh, there were many reasons for people of the 19th century to have concern about the morality of slavery. Think of the line from the diary of Mary Chesnut of Camden, South Carolina. She notes that every white lady seems to know who the fathers of all the mulatto children are on every plantation except her own. Adultery and miscegenation! Do we need to think of other examples?

  • Cody Allen May 15, 2014 @ 9:32

    Is someone seriously arguing that the cultural ethos and social standards of 1860 are the same measures by which we judge behavior in 2014? Is it seriously being argued that a sitting U.S. Senator in 2014 can make the statement, as John Sherman did in 1862, that “we do not like negroes, we do not disguise our dislike”, and maintain his seat? Is it seriously being argued that a Senate candidate can, in 2014, and as Lincoln did in 1858, repeatedly used the hateful term “ni@@er”, and go on to be elected President in 2016? This is patently absurd.

  • Betty Giragosian May 15, 2014 @ 2:26

    The other Susan, we must not judge the thinking of people of 150 years ago, namely Lee, by the standards of today. I daresay that not one of us would have the same opinion that Lee did re those of African descent.

    • Kevin Levin May 15, 2014 @ 2:31

      This is what people say when they perceive that someone is attacking Lee’s memory or good name. By the same token if we follow this to its logical conclusion we shouldn’t say anything positive or negative about their moral significance to our own time.

      • Rob Baker May 15, 2014 @ 2:41

        It’s somewhat ironic that those that make that argument are usually the ones passing judgement on topics of morality currently.

        • Kevin Levin May 15, 2014 @ 3:06

          Exactly. Funny how that works. 🙂

    • Andy Hall May 15, 2014 @ 5:15

      “We must not judge the thinking of people of 150 years ago, namely Lee, by the standards of today. ”

      That’s a rationalization, and a weak one at that. Which “people of 150 years ago” should we judge Lee by? Preston Brooks? Frederick Douglass? Charles Sumner? Louis Wigfall? Horace Greeley? Lucretia Mott? Nathan Forest? Very different people, very different views on slavery and the place of African Americans in this country.

      We do ourselves, and the past, no favors by hand-waving away Lee’s (or anyone else’s) views on the important issues of the day simply by saying, he was a man of his time. Of course he was, but so were all those others. We need to be really clear-eyed and candid about what those people thought and said and did, and make our own judgements about those things. Making judgements and assessments about people and events of the past is part of what historians do, just as we all make assessments and judgements of events going on around us today. Why should Lee’s attitudes ought to be off-limits to that process?

      • Kevin Levin May 15, 2014 @ 5:25

        Well said, Andy.

      • Pat Young May 15, 2014 @ 5:48

        I am glad that Andy includes Frederick Douglas in the list.

        Often when modern folks talk about American attitudes in the 1860s they envision white native-born men as the only standard. This seems weird to me. Black people, immigrants, women, Native Americans etc. also had opinions.

        • The other Susan May 15, 2014 @ 9:34

          Not unlike today when intelligent law students put their options down on paper but white Northerners are given credit for “stirring the pot”

    • The other Susan May 15, 2014 @ 10:15

      Just because the college has Lee’s name in it does not mean they magically only exist 150 years ago. They exist today and they will have to deal with today’s standards. If they want to evoke 150 year old sh*t and call it timeless ideals they should not be too surprised to find out that the modern world objects.

      • Andy Hall May 16, 2014 @ 6:16

        The loudest shrieking I’ve seen about the demands of “The Committee” at W&L are coming from people with little-to-no knowledge of, or interest in, Washington and Lee beyond the chapel and the school’s perpetuation as a Confederate shrine.

        Everyone has their priorities, so if some folks want to see W&L’s primary mission as hagiography of the Marble Man, that’s their prerogative. But the university’s actual students, faculty, staff, administrators and donors necessarily have a much bigger picture to consider. They have a university to run.

        • Pat Young May 16, 2014 @ 6:27

          Andy, my alma was founded by Millard Fillmore. He was key to getting the University of Buffalo underway and he maintained an active interest in it throughout his life. He was also a Know Nothing at a school whose students were mostly from Jewish and Catholic backgrounds. Once a year a bugler went to his grave and blew taps. That was about it. No one tried to tell us modern children of immigrants that we had to follow the ideals of a man who didn’t want us there in the first place.

          • Andy Hall May 16, 2014 @ 7:18

            I attended Texas A&M, whose most famous president was a former Confederate general. Sul Ross is something of a deity on that campus; although he was not the first leader of the school, he is seen as the founder of all that it would later become. But they revere Ross for a lifetime of public service, and don’t fetishize the four years he spent as a Confederate officer.

  • Theodore C. DeLaney May 13, 2014 @ 15:53

    Susan – Your points are well-taken. I have a PhD in American history with a focus on 19th century southern history. I don’t disagree with the points you make. I have read lots of primary source documents that prove beyond all doubt that slavery caused secession and Civil War. As a descendant of slaves, I surely do not believe that slavery is a timeless ideal.

    • The other Susan May 14, 2014 @ 22:39

      It’s off topic, but I must say I found your story of going back to college at an older age than the average student very inspirational.

  • Theodore C. DeLaney May 13, 2014 @ 12:28

    Kevin, No need to apologize! Our committee has discussed the website of UVA, and those of a couple of other Virginia colleges who have acknowledged slavery in the history of their schools. Indeed W&L did own slaves during the antebellum period; and one of my southern white students did an excellent honors thesis on that topic several years ago. In spite of the recent complaints that have drawn so much media attention, W&L is very much a 21st century institution. As you well know, I teach Civil Rights courses in the college and direct a minor in Africana Studies. During our spring term I teach a course called the Freedom Ride and travel through the South teaching the Civil Rights movement. As a southern university, W&L is not unaware of its historic racial problems. In conscience I could not work here if I did not believe this.

    • Kevin Levin May 13, 2014 @ 12:39

      Thanks for the follow up, Ted. I think it’s important that you reinforce this point since many people who have read stories surrounding this most recent controversy likely believe that the school has not adequately addressed the problem. I was also thinking that a website like UVA’s could address the history of Confederate heritage on campus. No doubt, there is a great deal of misunderstanding.

    • The other Susan May 13, 2014 @ 14:46

      Mr. DeLaney, I am curious as to your thoughts on your about page.

      “Founded in 1749, Washington and Lee University is named for two of the most influential men in American history”
      If Lee was so influential why did he not try to talk Virginia out of seceding instead of telling everyone that he had no choice but to go along with what they decided.

      “Grounded in the timeless ideals of its legendary namesakes, George Washington and Robert E. Lee, the W&L community thrives on an ethic of honor and civility.”

      See I can’t be sure where people are still coming up with the idea in this day and age that slavery was good for people. But it is still being said quite frequently. I can’t help but wonder if it is because they are reading the “timeless ideals of” “legendary namesakes”

      • Jerry McKenzie May 14, 2014 @ 8:08

        It’s marketing, not history.

  • Theodore C. DeLaney May 13, 2014 @ 10:49

    Washington and Lee has been addressing problems of diversity, history, and culture within its community for many years. Last fall the Office of the President established a committee to address the issue of college history and slavery as several other colleges and universities have already done. Our work has not concluded and, (to my mind) the complaints from the law students remind us of the need for greater dialogue within the institution. As a private institution, I believe that we must seek solutions that result from internal debate that includes the Board of Trustees, administration, faculty, staff, students, and alumni exclusively. I am an alumnus and faculty member, but not a spokesmen for Washington and Lee. The views expressed here are my own.

    • Kevin Levin May 13, 2014 @ 11:12

      Hi Ted,

      So nice to hear from you. Thanks for posting so many pics from your recent civil rights trip.

      I certainly did not intend to suggest that the W&L has not addressed these issues in meaningful ways. My apologies if that is how the post was interpreted. A friend passed on the new UVA website which I was quite impressed with as a reflection of its transparency and engagement with challenging questions for the benefit of both the campus and wider public. Thanks again.

    • Rob Baker May 14, 2014 @ 10:07

      Hi Theodore,

      Recognizing the fact that you speak for yourself and not the University; why do you think the “Committee” came forward with such a request? It seems like you guys are doing a wonderful job of facing the school’s history in regards to race relations and the Civil War.

  • Brendan Bossard May 13, 2014 @ 9:30

    Some ideas:

    – Develop a 1-semester, required Freshman class studying the histories of W&L and its two namesakes, which would naturally include their views and practices pertaining to slavery, and how W&L’s practices have evolved over the years;
    – Hold an annual forum and debate by students and scholars about same;
    – Hold an annual writing contest about civil rights (any topic, including current events);
    – Don’t allow activities on campus that are designed to provoke (i.e. Lee-Jackson Day marches) rather than resolve differences, or at least have a constructive dialog;
    – It is enough, I think, to have prospective students sign a pledge to abide by a list of ethical and moral practices not specifically attributed to Gens. Washington or Lee.

Now that you've read the post, share your thoughts.