Washington and Lee University’s Civil War (Update)

The president of W&L University has issued a statement about the college’s display of Confederate flags in Lee Chapel and other aspects of its Civil War past. As many of you know this controversy began a couple of months ago after a group of African-American law students issued a statement and list of demands about their school’s relationship to its past. 

You can read the president’s statement in its entirety here. Below are the five critical points that get to the heart of the matter.

1. The question about the regimental battle flags in Lee Chapel requires us to clarify the purpose, meaning and history of the flags, as well as the purpose and meaning of the chapel and the museum below the chapel. In 1930, several original and historic battle flags – “colors” that had been captured or surrendered to the Union army – were placed near the statue of Lee. The University did not own them. They were the property of the Museum of the Confederacy, now part of the American Civil War Museum, which asked us to return them in the 1990s because the manner of display in the chapel was causing their deterioration. They were replaced with reproductions, which are not historic and are not genuine artifacts.

The purpose of historic flags in a university setting is to educate. They are not to be displayed for decoration, which would diminish their significance, or for glorification, or to make a statement about past conflicts. The reproductions are not genuinely historic; nor are they displayed with any information or background about what they are. The absence of such explanation allows those who either “oppose” or “support” them to assert their own subjective and frequently incorrect interpretations.

Consequently, we will remove these reproductions from their current location and will enter into an agreement with the American Civil War Museum, in Richmond, to receive on loan one or more of the original flags, now restored, for display on a rotating basis in the Lee Chapel Museum, the appropriate location for such a display. In this way, those who wish to view these artifacts may do so, and the stories behind them can be properly told. You may view a history of the flags in the chapel at http://go.wlu.edu/chapel-flags-history.

2. I will urge the undergraduate faculty to decide this fall whether to cancel classes on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The faculty have authority over the academic calendar. I trust their judgment and will support their decision. I will recommend, however, that they not cancel classes. The question has never been whether or not we “fully recognize” King Day; the question is how we choose to honor Dr. King. For many years, we have offered both the W&L and Lexington communities an impressive array of presentations, service projects and performances to commemorate Dr. King’s life. I worry that this compelling series of events would give way to an uneventful three-day weekend. Canceling classes may have symbolic significance; I prefer the substance of our current programs over the symbolism of a day off.

3. The University will continue to study its historic involvement with slavery. We acknowledge that this was a regrettable chapter of our history, and we must confront and try to understand this chapter. At Washington and Lee, we learn from the past, and this is an episode from which there is much to learn. In 1826, Washington College came into possession of between 70 and 80 enslaved people from the estate of “Jockey” John Robinson. Until 1852, the institution benefited from their enslaved labor and, in some cases, from their sale. Acknowledging that historical record – and acknowledging the contributions of those individuals – will require coming to terms with a part of our past that we wish had been different but that we cannot ignore. We are committed to telling the University’s history accurately, including the stories of many individuals who should not be overlooked. That process is now underway through a special working group that was initially convened last fall and has begun to develop a timeline of the history of African Americans at the University and to explore other ways in which we can illuminate and recognize this history. See http://go.wlu.edu/af-am-timeline.

4. Groups not affiliated with the University may continue to use Lee Chapel for events so long as they do so in accordance with our established policies and guidelines. This includes such non-University events as the annual lecture sponsored by an outside group as part of the statewide Lee-Jackson Day observance in Lexington. (W&L does not observe that state holiday.) As a private university, we are not bound by the same legal and constitutional First Amendment constraints as public institutions. As an educational institution devoted to free and open inquiry, however, we are bound by these values. We can and do impose conditions for Lee Chapel’s use and for the use of all campus facilities. For example, a group may not “march” on our campus or use our campus as a platform for its own displays or statements. If it wishes to use the chapel for a lecture and adheres to our policies, however, it may do so.

5. In five years as president of Washington College (and in three as superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy), Robert E. Lee displayed his estimable skill as an innovative and inspiring educator. I personally take pride in his significant accomplishments here and will not apologize for the crucial role he played in shaping this institution. Affection for and criticism of historical figures living in complicated times are not mutually exclusive positions, however, as the scholar Joseph Ellis concluded after his study of Thomas Jefferson. Ellis found it difficult to “steer an honorable course between evisceration and idolatry” when it came to Jefferson. As I have listened to and read comments about Lee these past few months, I have felt the same way. Lee was an imperfect individual living in imperfect times. Lee deserves, and his record can withstand, an honest appraisal by those who understand the complexities of history. His considerable contributions to this institution are part of that record.

No doubt, the decision to remove the (reproduction) Confederate flags from inside Lee Chapel will upset a select few, but it seems to me that one of the original flags displayed and properly interpreted in the chapel’s museum is a nice trade-off.

Civil War Memory has moved to Substack! Don’t miss a single post. Subscribe below.

15 comments… add one
  • John Betts Jul 9, 2014 @ 7:19

    A well thought-out and interesting response. I myself initially objected to the removal of the flags in the crypt area, but didn’t realize that since 1995 are only reproductions. As an historic site, as well as given who is buried there, it seemed a bit much to make such a fuss over removal of Confederate flags. Moving to change the Georgia or Mississippi state flags for example (which happened to the former in a reasonable manner) is understandable. Trying to sanitize historic sites is not something I can agree to (improved messaging at these sites is another matter entirely and one I can get on board with). This response by W&L seems to do well in addressing my concerns while attempting to meet those of others.

  • Andy Hall Jul 8, 2014 @ 17:44
  • Andy Hall Jul 8, 2014 @ 17:38

    None of the predictably outraged responses I’ve seen so far acknowledge that (1) the flags being removed are replicas that only date to 1995, and (2) that they will be replaced by a rotating exhibit of a *real* Confederate flag, beginning with one captured at the “high water mark” of the Confederacy at the stone wall at Gettysburg.

    Style over substance, flashy showmanship over realty. Same as always.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Jul 8, 2014 @ 12:46

    I actually like the decision not to take the day off. It’s always talked about the Martin Luther King would have wanted people to participate in “a day on, not a day off,” albeit by their own volunteerism, however. We’re only human and I imagine most students would just use that day off as a chance to sleep in and take a break from studying. I can’t fault them for that because I would likely have done the same thing. So being in class and learning is kind of “a day on.”

    • Brooks D. Simpson Jul 9, 2014 @ 8:02

      I agree. There are better ways to use the day if the ambition is to educate and reflect.

  • Pamela Winterbottom Neilson Jul 8, 2014 @ 8:50

    These decisions seem intelligent and reasonable.

  • Meg Thompson Jul 8, 2014 @ 8:39

    Funny how law and logic, in capable hands, trump just about every other approach. Huzzah!

  • Brooks D. Simpson Jul 8, 2014 @ 8:28

    This seems reasonable and intelligent. That will make it an ideal target for some people. Just wait.

  • Pat Young Jul 8, 2014 @ 7:50

    The members of The Committee are to be congratulated for helping spark this reexamination by the university’s administration.

    • James Harrigan Jul 9, 2014 @ 3:20

      agreed, Pat. The law students’ activism led directly to this outcome.

    • Brooks D. Simpson Jul 9, 2014 @ 8:01

      They sparked a useful discussion, but it’s to be seen whether they are pleased with the result.

  • Christopher Coleman Jul 8, 2014 @ 7:41

    A well reasoned and reasonable response.

  • Eric A. Jacobson Jul 8, 2014 @ 7:34

    I think that trading the reproductions for an original, or originals, on a rotating basis is a wonderful decision. I also really like his point about a private university not being bound by the same First Amendment parameters as a public university. The same holds true for a private site period, versus one that is public. Folks from either side of the spectrum don’t just get to storm a private location (no more than an individual’s home) and espouse whatever they want. This is where Southern heritage folks and hardcore leftists often get confused. Just because they think they have the right to say what they want, or display what they want, they actually don’t if the platform is a private location.

    I have confronted a similar issue in Franklin and we use the exact same approach.

    Anyway, I also like the statement about Lee. It would have been easy to just back down, but Lee was indeed a product of his time. Just like Grant, just like Lincoln, and millions of others.

    • The other Susan Jul 8, 2014 @ 10:01

      “Lee was an imperfect individual living in imperfect times.” I didn’t really buy that whole, we are just a product of our society, bit when it was put forth by Oliver Stone in Natural Born Killers. I’d like to beleive we have the capacity to rise above such things no matter what circumstances we were born into. But that’s just me.

  • Rob Baker Jul 8, 2014 @ 7:20

    Well thought out.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *