Washington & Lee University Confronts Its Confederate Past

Earlier today Washington & Lee University shared its Report of the Commission on Institutional History and Community on its website. The report is incredibly detailed and reflects a good deal of hard work by the commission’s members, which included faculty, students, staff, and alumni.

I have not had a chance to read the entire report, but a few of the recommendations that caught my include the following:

  • Require each undergraduate student to take a seminar that explores W&L history, including the involvement of the namesakes, the contribution of enslaved persons, the role of W&L in the creation and dissemination of the Lost Cause narrative, the training of soldiers on campus, and the impact of our graduates on the institution and the world.
  • Refer to Robert E. Lee as “President Lee” rather than “General Lee,” including in formal documents, on the website, and the like.
  • Convert Lee Chapel and Museum building into a museum, which would serve as a teaching environment with a well-appointed classroom, offices, and state-of-the-art exhibition space.
  • Display only portraits of Lee that portray him in civilian attire, not as a Confederate general.
  • Re-name Robinson Hall immediately. The hall’s association with slavery at Washington College – i.e., that the Robinson bequest included enslaved persons who labored at the institution until the institution sold them to others – gives special urgency to this proposal.

The commission recommended that the school not change its name at this time. Again, this only scratches the surface of the list of recommendations.

It will be interesting to see how the W&L community responds. I suspect that they will see resistance from older alumni, who may find it difficult to acknowledge how memory of the Confederacy has shaped race relations and the broader racial culture on campus.

8 comments… add one
  • Mark Snell May 19, 2018 @ 15:51

    Mike, that punch line is attributed to George Bernard Shaw–anyone can be bought for a price, if the price is right. . . . “What do you think I am, a prostitute?”

  • Ken Burchell May 18, 2018 @ 11:59

    If “Robinson” Hall needs to go, then it seems to me that so does the name of “Lee” in the university: the name of a treasonous general who spilled oceans of blood and suffering to defend the institution of slavery.

    • Mark Snell May 19, 2018 @ 10:17

      By your reasoning, Ken, then the name of Washington should be eliminated, too. After all, didn’t Washington commit treason against Great Britain in defense of a confederation that also perpetuated the institution of slavery? Perhaps the school should change its name to “Lexington University” and completely wipe the slate clean. Such a radical idea, however, most likely would have a negative impact on older alumni, as Kevin points out. (Keep in mind that many of those older alumni also are potential donors, which could cause quite a conundrum for the university’s administration.)

      • Ken Burchell May 19, 2018 @ 11:50

        Mr. Snell, I’m not a big fan of Washington either — you can remove the name for all I care. I’d prefer Thomas Paine University to Lexington, but that’s open to discussion. But Washington didn’t commit treason against my country (at least not in the Revolution anyway). Lee did … and he willfully slaughtered thousands of Americans in order to preserve slavery. Treason against monarchy is loyalty to liberty.

        • Mark Snell May 19, 2018 @ 15:59

          “Treason against monarchy is loyalty to liberty.” I wonder if the slaves believed that when His Majesty’s forces freed them from their patriot masters? That the British gave wholesale freedom to slaves owned by rebels is problematic in itself, but that discussion is way off thread. Let’s stay on topic.

      • Mike Furlan May 19, 2018 @ 13:30

        “Such a radical idea, however, most likely would have a negative impact on older alumni, as Kevin points out. (Keep in mind that many of those older alumni also are potential donors, which could cause quite a conundrum for the university‚Äôs administration.)”
        Mark, help me out. I can’t remember the entire joke, but the punch line is, “We’ve established what you are, we are just negotiating the price.” Do you know the rest?

        • Kenneth Burchell May 19, 2018 @ 14:40

          Funny/strange: I don’t find it radical at all. I find the idea of commemorating our traitors and the slaughterers of Union troops to be radical if not un-American. Different strokes …

          As for the alumni, frankly Mike Furlon, Kevin, and others … I don’t give a tinker’s damn. I believe our educational system is WAY too privatized already and since the great bulk of alumni interest and donations are directed to sports, the college/university could probably survive the transition to a more blended system of funding.

          Best wishes to one and all.

  • Diane Hyra May 18, 2018 @ 11:12

    Thank you, Kevin, for keeping me informed of news items such as this. I think it is to their credit that W&L chose to take a look at their history and consider changes to their future.

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