The Committee’s Work

W&L Students Who Called For Removal of Confederate Flags from Lee Chapel

Washington & Lee Students Who Called For Removal of Confederate Flags from Lee Chapel (“The Committee”)

Recumbent Lee Memorial Without Flags (July 10, 2014)

Recumbent Statue of Robert E. Lee Without Flags (July 10, 2014)

This is the first image of inside Lee Chapel that I’ve seen since the Confederate flags were removed.

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31 comments… add one
  • Julian Jul 11, 2014 @ 18:01

    A couple of things – I have noticed that people based outside America – including those with postgraduate and relevant qualifications – are quite shocked and surprised at this – and I have been told that English people with no relationship to Southern heritage movements or US politics have been flaming W&L by phone and by letters. [Ok this does sound like I am constructing straw man arguments but I have had emailed accounts etc summarising what was described as a “barrage” ]. From a European and British Commonwealth perspective the hanging of flags within a place of worship and around a grave or memorial to a military person or personnel is not a perverse or obscene thing nor a strange invention of early 20th century lost causers such as the SCV and UDC – but a familiar, expected form of war memorial and a place that often allows for a personal sense making and reverie about the past and an honouring of the sacrifices of the past. The vehemence that I have seen in emails shared with me is deeply visceral as if something known and loved was desecrated. It may be a surprise at least to those W&L staff at the frontline when these passionate communications co\ame in. Without being embedded in racial and social politics of the 20th century in the US – the Committees actions seem to outsiders to be self-centred and childish – although they are embedded in a much wider repositioning and debate about the CSA that does not always travel overseas where there is affection for the CSA, the ANV battle flag and Lee himself- how do you explain the French African man I saw earlier this year in Paris running a shop selling jeans sewn from large scale battleflag material. There was no cause and effect – stars and bars equals oppression of Africans – thinking in his choice of merchandise

    I believe that the flags have been in different configurations within the chapel – being instigated by a son of a Confederate officer who had seen Napoleon’s tomb in Les Invalides and donated ceremonial staffs presented to his father in the CSA army – upon which were displayed actual battleflags of the ANV. They used to stand at the entrance to the chapel and then were moved into the more dramatic presentation around the tomb that has become settled in the public mind and creates also the “pilgrimage” feel. The original flags will now be returned under very different museum conditions as interpreted objects under glass, subject to very low conservation light levels, and not in a condition that resembles the conditions when the flags were military device in action. So the memorial aura of the flags could be split into two elements and this is where the situation is a bit of an apple and pear comparison – and there is gain but not full equivalent restitution/restoration of the loss. There is the historical aura of the flags themselves, that was compromised – as in many places by the open display fo fragile material culture – and which has now been restored to the place with the display of original flags in the museum. Then there is the emotive tradition of the leader in glory, the honouring of the heroic deeds of the past with the showing of flags within a sacred, memorialising space as shown by these panoply of the first original then reproduction flags where it is the ritual rather than witness qualities that invoked and this is now disrupted

    A third point – Kevin have you commented that the Citadel – which I believe has a more diverse student population proportionally has just last month gone in the other direction and ratified the display of the battleflag in the face of calls for it to be removed – on the same grounds of its symbolic role during the civil rights era. On the one hand it can show the heritage community that not all the symbols of CSA are censored automatically and wholesalely, on the other it is a slightly more counter intuitive and unpredictable decision to have been made – given that there is a diverse student population with the first African American attendees being enrolled at least a decade before W&L and these is not the same intense imbrication of leader/confederate narrative/physical site and heritage imagery as at W&L

  • Rob Baker Jul 11, 2014 @ 9:17

    Interesting. I visited the chapel not too long ago and I will say it looks empty without the flags. At the same time, I like how the only thing to look at is Lee. The focus is on him and his actions which plays into the larger narrative of his impact on the school.

    • Michael Lynch Jul 11, 2014 @ 18:23

      I think it looks a bit empty, too, but maybe that’s just because I’m used to seeing it with the flags. I think a Virginia state flag on a pole in each of the back corners would look pretty nice.

  • Andy Hall Jul 11, 2014 @ 8:38

    One bit of information I haven’t seen is how the original demands from the Committee played out on campus. It’s easy to say, “this is just seven [twelve?] students,” but we don’t know (or I haven’t seen) how the Committee’s demands are being viewed within the W&L community — students, faculty, staff, donors, alumni, and so on. If the Committee were widely viewed as extremist whakaloons presenting a view only they held, I really do doubt the university administration would have bothered to treat this situation as seriously as it has.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 11, 2014 @ 8:43

      That’s absolutely right. In the end, this decision belongs to the entire W&L community. Perhaps, instead of calling it states rights we should call it campus rights.

      • Andy Hall Jul 11, 2014 @ 8:54

        I was thinking to myself, “I wonder how the Virginia Flaggers would deal with this situation at the university they run,” and realized, “Oh, they don’t run a university.” At least, non an accredited one.

        Ruscio’s actions in this case may prove to have been a good idea or a bad one over time, but it’s clear to me that he and his advisers are acting in what they perceive to be the best interests of the university as a whole, which is *exactly* what they’re supposed to do.

  • John Bell Jul 11, 2014 @ 7:59

    Looking at that picture of “The Committee” I see the problem.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 11, 2014 @ 8:05

      I am sure you do.

    • Pat Young Jul 11, 2014 @ 9:05

      What about the picture is problematic?

      • Brad Jul 12, 2014 @ 16:42

        I agree wholeheartedly. Saying they need white members perpetuates a view of racial relations we don’t need anymore.

  • Lyle Smith Jul 11, 2014 @ 7:36

    I’m troubled by the fact that the committee appears to only be made up of black students. If I were them, I would have gotten some white students put on that committee. There would have been a stronger and more diverse message presented to the university perhaps, and they wouldn’t have appear so racialized.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 11, 2014 @ 7:46

      Would you say the same thing if all the students in question were white?

      • Lyle Smith Jul 11, 2014 @ 8:08

        Yeah, most definitely. This is why our government and our businesses go out of their way to racially diversify themselves.

        My problem with them not having any white students on the committee suggests to me that they don’t actually understand that the Confederate battle flag offends all kinds of people, and not just themselves. They missed an opportunity to present their grievances to the university in a more powerful way.

        • Kevin Levin Jul 11, 2014 @ 8:12

          I don’t know what they did or didn’t do on campus before or after the students released their list. It seems to me you are assuming quite a bit beyond the racial makeup of the group.

          • Lyle Smith Jul 11, 2014 @ 8:29

            I’m not assuming anything. From the picture you’ve posted it is a fact that all of the committee members are black.

            I think they would have done better as a committee, if they had been more racially diverse. Why? Because all kinds of people have issues with the Confederate battle flag.

            • Kevin Levin Jul 11, 2014 @ 8:37

              I think they would have done better as a committee, if they had been more racially diverse.

              Thanks for the follow up, Lyle. I guess I don’t know what you are measuring this against. “Better” than what? Are you referring to the controversy this has created beyond the campus or are you referring to what you’ve heard to be going on within the student body? I can’t comment at all on the latter beyond having talked with one of my former students who recently graduated from W&L.

              • Lyle Smith Jul 11, 2014 @ 8:55

                I think they would look better from afar, and maybe even on campus (drawing from my own campus experience), if they were more racially diverse.

                I was once a member of a couple student committees and having people of all stripes on those committees was important.

                • Kevin Levin Jul 11, 2014 @ 9:03

                  I think they would look better from afar, and maybe even on campus (drawing from my own campus experience), if they were more racially diverse.

                  Perhaps, but I don’t know enough to be able to say one way or the other.

    • Goad Gatsby Jul 11, 2014 @ 9:30

      As far as I know, Jessica Piltch (not pictured) has been quoted by news sources as a member of The Committee but is not in the photo. I’m not sure why that is, but it seems The Committee has of white supporters on campus.

      • Lyle Smith Jul 11, 2014 @ 9:49

        That’s good then. I hope she’s a full-fledged member.

  • Pamela Winterbottom Neilson Jul 11, 2014 @ 6:48

    Sometimes, as in this case, less is more. The eye focuses on Lee which is as it should be.

  • CMcWhirter Jul 11, 2014 @ 6:21

    Wow. It’s much more ascetically pleasing this way–putting the emphasis more on Lee, as the original designers intended. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still plenty of Lost Cause to go around in that chapel, but now it seems much less a celebration of the Confederacy than a memorial to one of its leaders and (rightly or wrongly) an American icon.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 11, 2014 @ 6:36

      I completely agree. Thanks, Chris.

    • Ken Noe Jul 11, 2014 @ 7:11

      You make a great point. The original chapel was completed in 1868, designed in great part by his son Custis. Lee died and was buried in the crypt,in 1870. The “Recumbent Lee” was installed in 1883, during Custis Lee’s presidency. The flags didn’t go in until 1930, seventeen years after Custis died. So if nothing else, we at least can assume that’s how Edward Valentine and Lee’s eldest son actually wanted it to look.

      • Andy Hall Jul 11, 2014 @ 7:41

        Minor point, but skimming through the old issues of Confederate Veteran, I believe the mausoleum was rebuilt and expanded in the late 1920s, along with added improvements such as fireproofing. Since the UDC asked to have the flags added in 1930, that addition may be the result of that expansion — adding them to help fill the space visually, perhaps.

        It remains, though, that they were added long after the mausoleum was designed, and were never intended originally. Like the flags added to the porch at the chapel in Richmond in 1993, they were a later addition that was put there because someone thought they looked good.

        • Woodrowfan Jul 11, 2014 @ 12:42

          Fireproofing? as a good damnyankee I am sorely tempted to make a joke about Lee needing fireproofing where he ended up, but shall refrain…

    • John Betts Jul 11, 2014 @ 7:44

      Good points. I’m okay with the new-old look of the crypt area if it stays as is. However, I like the proposal on Dead Confederates of adding in the state flags of the old Confederacy along the back wall. Very interesting look to that and Lee would probably approve given his belief in states rights.

      • Andy Hall Jul 11, 2014 @ 8:33

        That was mostly in jest, but if they do it I’m sending W&L an invoice for consultation.

        • John Betts Jul 12, 2014 @ 7:52

          Maybe so but it was still visually appealing. However, there IS something to be said for leaving the crypt area as is in order to keep the focus on Lee the man. He may be most famous for his years as a Confederate general, but his service at what’s now W&L University afterwards is largely overlooked. It does make sense for W&L to bring more attention to his post-war service at their institution. Very interesting from what I read in “Lee: The Last Years”.

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