Does W&L’s Lee Chapel Contribute To the “Psychological Shackles” on Campus?

According to the members of “The Committee” both the chapel’s Confederate flags and its use by “neo-confederates” have contributed to “both the past and current racial bigotry and discrimination found on our campus.” I don’t for a minute deny that these students perceive the chapel as contributing to the school’s racial climate, but that shouldn’t prevent us from taking a quick look at how the chapel has been utilized. What follows is not meant in any way as an exhaustive list of the range of speakers and subjects that have been discussed in the Lee Chapel, but as a small sample.

We could start with Donna Brazile’s recent keynote address on Martin Luther King’s birthday. In 2009 Dick Gregory delivered a very moving address on the same occasion. That same year Clarence Thomas spoke inside the Lee Chapel. How have their appearances contributed to the meaning and evolving legacy of the Lee Chapel?

A couple of years ago Gary Gallagher was invited to deliver the “Remembering Robert E. Lee Lecture”. He focused on Lee’s time at then Washington College and warned his audience at the beginning that they might hear some things that they find offensive. This past February historian Allen Guelzo reflected on the legacy of the Gettysburg Address.

All of this took place under Confederate flags and in full sight of Edward Valentine’s recumbent statue of Robert E. Lee.

This post as well as previous posts should not be read as an attempt to dismiss student concerns about their campus’s racial climate. My concern is with the way in which these students frame the problem. It seems to me that their focus on “neo-confederates” and Confederate flags minimizes the significance of a building that belongs to the entire community. Robert E. Lee could never have anticipated the range of people and subjects that have found a home in the chapel. No doubt, Lee himself would be appalled by the presence of specific individuals.

Instead of calling for the removal of objects from the chapel and barring certain groups from using it, these students ought to take the high road and add to the meaning and legacy of this site. Organize events for the chapel that address issues that are deemed to be important. Leave your own mark that students who follow can build on in a constructive way.

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26 comments… add one
  • Julian Apr 20, 2014 @ 9:17

    Although these cases have come up in a very close time frame – I don’t think that are fully identical. The flags at the Lee Chapel have a very long history and context and they are part of a far greater historical, cultural, political entity and a history of usage and habitation of the site. To change, edit or correct the site immediately brings into play a need to take cognisance of that heritage or be guilty of changing or distorting that history and also impacting upon material cultural inheritance/heritage that has both actual and intangible merit for the community. Given that the Committee feel alienated or oppressed by the tangible presence of the flags – one would also like to think that they have the maturity to realise that with material cultural heritage of that age there are many and changing nodes of engagement with such facilities and that multiple stories can and should co-exist

    The other two cases Waldron High and St Anthony’s from press accountd are about gestures and actions – with a far more shallow and immediate backstory – at least for St Antony’s. The element of an intentional desire to direct a hate filled message is there particularly in the blackface photographs – there is no regional or heritage justifications to blackface, at least not in Long Island – people are mounting arguments for its inclusion in St Nicholas pageants in Europe and in some British folk dance both of which have used blackface for centuries. However is it racism alone or is it also teenage sh*t, there are cases where teenage students can harass – especially by social media – their peers to the point of suicide – and not only school students, I know a case where a university student fell foul of a social group and she was receiving 300 + hostile texts in an evening. The atmosphere at St Antony’s sounds toxic and as much as expelling students they need to investigate a culture where students felt permitted to make these gestures or have no remorse of addressing fellow students in an manner that is so obviously intended to cause upset

    Waldron is more about teenage sh*t pure and simple – from the reports that I have seen – there is no mention of an African American cohort at the schools – and it says volumes about gender expectations and activities.

    This combative sense of pride in origins where students bring or wear Mexican or US flags to school or drive trucks with the battle flag seems could be indicative of the strange flip side of certain constructs of identity that often come down to a fairly superficial set of self imposed stereotypes of behaviours and symbols and discourages a sense of empathy or tolerance for those that are not within your own template

  • Julian Apr 20, 2014 @ 6:28

    This guy’s combination of wall to wall f-bombing and civil war history has gotten a mention here before but as of one day ago he takes on St Antony’s High School and the idea of the Battleflag as a hate symbol – certainly this guy’s 150th is not anaemic nor does he suffer from any “psychological shackles” … its a different place on the massive spectrum of views on the flag – but it indicates that the flag is not going withdraw gracefully from public view so far

    • Kevin Levin Apr 20, 2014 @ 6:30

      Thanks for the link.

  • Brendan Bossard Apr 19, 2014 @ 19:15

    I cannot help but wonder, “What would Martin Luther King, Jr. do?”

    It seems to me that if he were a student on campus, he would try to effect change in the culture of the campus with a grass-roots educational campaign, combined with non-confrontational negotiations with the president and dean. He would move to civil disobedience only when the former two tactics didn’t work.

    This does not seem to be what happened. It is clear from the six articles I’ve read that there is something about the culture of W&L that is disconcerting to black students. What is not clear is the extent to which the aggregate population of black students at W&L actually experiences the “psychological shackles” to which The Committee referred. There are only two specific references: one to signing the contract to abide by Lee’s code of honor at orientation, the other to neo-confederates marching on Lee-Jackson Day. Both of these are temporary in nature. There are no specific references to any on-going cultural oppression that I can see, just vague feelings of discomfort.

    There is no indication that anyone tried to educate fellow students or negotiate with the leaders–who seem perfectly willing to listen, unlike those of the Jim Crow South–before moving to direct confrontation. Moreover, The Committee did not even list specific, on-going grievances, outside of references to the Lee-Jackson Day marches and the Confederate flags. They would have done well to use our own Declaration of Independence as a model for outlining their specific grievances and their long-suffering attempts to resolve those grievances before moving to direct threats of disobedience.

    I know that The Committee means well, and I hope that they are able successfully to negotiate a compromise with the leaders of W&L. I just hope that they and other groups like them will follow MLK’s pattern of leadership moving forward.

  • Pat Young Apr 19, 2014 @ 14:38

    I have to say that I agree far more with Brother Gary at St. Anthony’s who made the difficult decision to expel two students who flew the Confederate flag, than I do with those posters here who suggest that if black students don’t like the flag they should not go to W&L:

    On Wednesday, [Brother Gary] Cregan [said]

    “I cannot comprehend that in this day and age people would think this type of racial insensitivity is acceptable,” he said.

    “I am trying to clearly indicate St. Anthony’s High School’s disgust with racial intolerance, and the message I am trying to really express to everyone is that we’re in America in 2014 and that this is not the way we should be living as American citizens and not the way we should be living as people in America,” he said.

    “St. Anthony’s, founded in 1933 by the Franciscan brothers, has about 2,450 students in grades 9-12. Cregan said about 1,800 of its students are white, 138 black, 215 of Asian ethnicity, about 200 of Hispanic ethnicity, six American Indian and about four of Pacific Island ethnicity. Another 46 are of mixed race, he said.”
    [from Newsday]

    • Michael Rodgers Apr 19, 2014 @ 15:13

      Kevin did say, “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.” His point was about the extremism of “The Committee” as expressed in the text of their petition.
      While you may have heard it, Kevin did not say, “if black students don’t like the flag they should not go to W&L.” I don’t like what Kevin said any more than you do. What he said sounds a lot like what you heard, and other people will take it and did take it as such. But what you heard is not what he said.

      • Kevin Levin Apr 19, 2014 @ 16:13

        My position has been made clear over the past few posts. There is really nothing more for me to add.

      • Pat Young Apr 19, 2014 @ 19:19

        Just to be clear, I have not said that Kevin said that Black students should not go to W&L.

    • Michael Lynch Apr 19, 2014 @ 18:23

      My initial comment on Kevin’s earlier post was rather snarky, perhaps unduly so. To clarify what I was trying to say, I didn’t mean to suggest that people offended by the flag shouldn’t go to W&L. What I meant was this: I’d assume people offended by the flag would be aware of the fact that Lee Chapel is the sort of place where one might expect to encounter it, and I’d hope that people who normally (and rightly) find the flag shocking or offensive in many other settings might consider that, in the particular setting of Lee Chapel, it might be appropriate to rethink one’s initial feeling of shock or offense. One is likely to find Confederate symbols in the vicinity of Robert E. Lee’s burial place, and I don’t really think that’s any cause for alarm. That’s what my position here boils down to.

      I’ve never been shy about criticizing insensitive and inappropriate use of the CBF, which–let us be clear–is a symbol that does not belong in a whole lot of places. I just don’t think the flags at Lee Chapel are out of place or pernicious. I’m not saying the students offended by the flags should just pack up and leave, or that they should learn to grin and bear it if they want to stay at W&L. I am saying that I’m not convinced their demand that the flags be removed has much merit, and it doesn’t look like they’re too interested in persuading the unconvinced.

  • Pat Young Apr 19, 2014 @ 14:26

    I think the broader public views the Confederate Battle Flag very differently from the Civil War Community. Here on Long Island, I think people would be much more sympathetic to the Black students who don’t want that flag flying on school property.

    Two students were expelled from my son’s alma mater this week for display of the flag. Here is today’s Newsday (the Long Island newspaper) with this editorial on the meaning of the flag.

    Editorial: Deep hatred embodied in the Confederate flag

    Originally published: April 17, 2014 5:05 PM


    St. Anthony’s High School has expelled four students in two separate incidents that the principal said were racially offensive — one involving display of a Confederate battle flag at a school sports event and the other involving blackface.

    If you go to the website of Frazier Glenn Cross Jr., the alleged killer of three people outside Jewish centers in Kansas, you will see that the Confederate battle flag is both the site’s logo and, in photos of racist marches, its most dominant feature.

    Such a flag has no place at St. Anthony’s High School in South Huntington, nor do the students who brought it there. Their actions were unacceptable because of the message the flag is used to convey, made clear by the people who wave it. People such as Cross.

    A high-profile activist, felon and sometime political candidate also known as Frazier Glenn Miller Jr., he was known well enough that he once had a 40-minute interview on “The Howard Stern Show.” Cross is also a leader in a white supremacist movement that preaches the killing of Jews, blacks and Catholics and the overthrow of the federal government. Cross’ shooting victims on Sunday were actually two Methodists and a Catholic. As he was put into a squad car, Cross yelled, “Heil Hitler!”

    In America today, that hatred and that violent movement are what this flag most clearly stands for — the same flag that was proudly carried at a thousand Ku Klux Klan marches, cross burnings and lynchings. So when two seniors at St. Anthony’s came to a school sports event displaying that flag on April 9, they gave school officials a choice: Brush it off, or draw a line and deliver a strong message making it clear how completely unacceptable such behavior is.

    The school did exactly the right thing, expelling the students. It also expelled two sophomores after they posted on social media a picture of one in blackface, along with racially inflammatory language.

    Brother Gary Cregan, principal of the school, said, “This is not the way we should be living as American citizens and not the way we should be living as people in America.” He’s right. Call it a teachable moment, and action needed to be taken. We cannot tolerate behavior that communicates so much hatred and intolerance in a school setting without eroding respect and common decency in society.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 19, 2014 @ 16:15

      I think the broader public views the Confederate Battle Flag very differently from the Civil War Community. Here on Long Island, I think people would be much more sympathetic to the Black students who don’t want that flag flying on school property.

      That’s probably right, but we are not talking about Long Island. We are talking about a specific place and building with a very different history.

      The school did exactly the right thing, expelling the students. It also expelled two sophomores after they posted on social media a picture of one in blackface, along with racially inflammatory language.

      I completely agree.

  • Christopher Shelley Apr 18, 2014 @ 18:33

    Would it help at all to point out that General Lee’s success was crucial to prolonging the war past the Spring of 1862? And that without his success there’s an excellent chance that the war would have ended before slavery was destroyed? Without the Seven Days, there’s no Emancipation Proclamation. In an important way, Lee had a profound role to play in this drama.

    But I have to agree with Kevin, that context is everything, and these icons transcend simple neo-Confederate symbols. (Of course, if I were black, I might feel quite different.)

    • Kevin Levin Apr 19, 2014 @ 1:32

      Couldn’t that also be easily flipped around to show how committed Lee was to Confederate independence?

  • Brooks D. Simpson Apr 18, 2014 @ 11:01

    I’m just waiting for Virginia’s foremost Confederate heritage/flag organization to weigh in. Or does Glave & Holmes do work with Washington and Lee, too?

    I see nothing in the W&L Honor Code that offers a link to Lee; it is very much like the UVa Honor Code, and as someone with a degree from that institution I freely admit that Mr. Jefferson never cast a shadow over that pledge.

  • Al Mackey Apr 18, 2014 @ 9:50

    Lee died as the president of Washington College, not as the commander of an army.

    Lee himself, after the war, said, “The great mistake of my life was taking a military education.” [Douglas S. Freeman, R. E. Lee, Vol IV, p. 278]*.html

    Perhaps Lee himself, if given the chance, would prohibit confederate battle flags around his tomb. Perhaps Lee himself, if given the chance, would not have permitted the recumbent statue to depict him in uniform.

    According to Gary Gallagher, Lee wouldn’t allow students or faculty to express harsh words against “Yankees.” Perhaps Lee himself, if given the chance, would not allow the neoconfederate programs in the chapel.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 18, 2014 @ 9:52

      Good points, Al.

    • Jimmy L. Shirley Jr. Jul 10, 2014 @ 19:32

      “Perhaps Lee himself, if given the chance, would not allow the neoconfederate programs in the chapel.”
      I disagree, given what the Republican party did to the South in occupying it. Lee saw that and it surely grieved him to his heart. And while it cant not be proven he said late in life he wished he had died at Appomattox than to live and see what had become of the Republican victory, I believe it he certainly thought it, changing his mind about those people.


      • Kevin Levin Jul 11, 2014 @ 3:49

        We are certainly free to believe what we will in situations where sufficient evidence is lacking.

  • Paul Taylor Apr 18, 2014 @ 9:22

    Kevin – While I fully agree with your position, I cannot help but wonder what it ultimately means when we say that the university should “take the group’s concerns seriously.” Is that code for “acquiesce” or just give them a respectful consideration? Especially if at the end of it all, the university opts to maintain the status quo? Just today we now learn that the students are demanding what I suspected this would lead to all along – a total banishment of all Confederate symbols on campus and a repudiation of Lee’s affiliation with the school.

    If the demands are not met, the students will show their disdain for the school’s consideration of their position by engaging in civil disobedience. I confess that the phrase “tyranny of the minority” comes to mind….

    • Kevin Levin Apr 18, 2014 @ 9:34

      I don’t think it’s code for anything beyond the acknowledgment that a group of students have expressed concerns about the state of their campus. There is nothing new in this news article that hasn’t already been expressed in the original petition. Regardless of the student imposed deadline I do hope that a productive discussion is possible.

  • Julian Apr 18, 2014 @ 6:46

    Hi Kevin – as this story begins to filter – perhaps surprisingly slowly – through the mainstream media – more details are emerging of the backstory that suggest that you have grasped ( I wont be mean and say second guessed 😉 ) the actual impetus behind this dispute. As various individuals speak to the press it emerges from their comments that the students have some real – and perhaps for many readers shocking – grievances and one interviewee suggested that the real culture on campus was different to that which she was told of when her enrolment was accepted – but they are about current 2014 interactions and value systems – and in one case seems to relate specifically to the culture of the law school. As you have pointed out, given the ease with which the Chapel could simply become a pilgrimage site for new conservative movements and their particular use of ACW history – the University have managed the site with both intelligence and dignity in terms of ACW scholarship but achieved this is a way that does not diminish the gravitas of the presence of Lee’s tomb and its own cultural relevance. Reading some of the material that is coming out – I think that neither the tomb nor even commemorations by people in confederate uniforms are causal (even symbolically) to the actual grievances’ emerging from interviews with students. I would suggest that these grievances are of this day and age and need to be addressed in a practical manner that delivers outcomes in the here and now.

    Not all African American students necessarily agree with the approach of the Committee

    here is an example of the emerging news coverage

    CBS have but a few minutes ago put up an article so it is going to “break bad”

    and another incident further north

    • Kevin Levin Apr 18, 2014 @ 6:52

      Hi Julian,

      Thanks for the comment and for the links. I’ve been following the story as well and I can’t say I am surprised at how quickly the story has spread. You are right that the university should take this seriously and deal with the specifics of this group’s concerns. As has already been pointed out the university is in a difficult situation given the divisive history/heritage attached to the Lee Chapel and Lee himself. At the same time these students also need to understand that their approach cannot be all or nothing. I believe they can be much more proactive in the way they choose to utilize the Lee Chapel to help address their concerns rather than simply trying to push it away.

      • Rob Baker Apr 18, 2014 @ 8:32

        I personally think the honor code, the flags, and the R.E. Lee bust are somewhat beside the point. I think the biggest issue is how the site is utilized by certain groups when they rent the space. Perhaps, the best and most appropriate compromise is to limit the chapel to church service event rentals (i.e. weddings, commemorations, etc.) and campus sponsored events only. Just an idea.

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