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Flag that will be part of museum exhibit at Washington and Lee

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Contested History

July 9, 2014

In recent years, many colleges have considered their institutions' ties to slavery, and how to appropriately acknowledge that history. Such a discussion has come to a head at Washington and Lee University, where the president on Tuesday acknowledged and apologized for a history in which the university owned slaves, and announced that Confederate flags that have been on display next to a statue of Robert E. Lee will be removed.

The president's statement followed several months of sometimes divisive debate after a group of black law students demanded a series of changes at the university -- some of which are addressed in the president's letter.

Few colleges are as closely tied to a Confederate hero as is Washington and Lee. Robert E. Lee was president of what was then Washington College from 1865, shortly after he surrendered his army, until 1870, when he died. As president, he led the college to financial stability and expanded the curriculum. His ideas are credited with the eventual development of the university's honor code. Shortly after he died, the board of the college changed the name of the institution to Washington and Lee. All presidents since Lee have lived in his house.

The black law students -- members of a group called "The Committee" -- in April demanded a series of changes at the university, where they said some practices alienated black students and prospective students. They called for the removal of the Confederate flags from the Lee Chapel, making Martin Luther King Day a campus holiday, a ban on "neo-confederates" who "march on campus with Confederate flags on Lee-Jackson day," and a formal apology "for the university's participation in chattel slavery" and "Robert E. Lee's participation in slavery." (While the university lets the group the Committee called neo-confederate hold events in the campus chapel, officials have repeatedly denied that there have been marches across campus with Confederate flags.)

Reports about the Committee's demands drew press coverage in many publications (including this one) and many on campus expressed frustration with how debate then took place. Kenneth P. Ruscio, the president, in his statement on Tuesday, said that "[e]ver since the students' letter to me and to members of the Board of Trustees became public, misinformation and erroneous assumptions have combined with emotionally charged reactions to create more heat than light."

On the issue of the flags, he said that he saw real concerns with the flags' location beside a statue of Lee. (The current flags are replicas of earlier flags.) "The purpose of historic flags in a university setting is to educate," Ruscio wrote. "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."

The originals were once where the replicas stand, and the American Civil War Museum has restored them, and will -- from now on -- provide one or more of the flags for display with context in the museum beneath the chapel. There, "those who wish to view these artifacts may do so, and the stories behind them can be properly told," he wrote.

Regarding slaves owned by the university, Ruscio wrote that Washington and Lee is working on a way to properly acknowledge them. On the history, he wrote: "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."

Ruscio said that the faculty at Washington and Lee makes decisions about the academic calendar, and that he would respect any decision to start observing Martin Luther King Day as a formal holiday. But he said he would recommend against such a decision.

"The question has never been whether or not we 'fully recognize' King Day; the question is how we choose to honor Dr. King," he wrote. "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."

Further, Ruscio urged that Robert E. Lee be viewed in his totality, not ignoring his Confederate role nor focusing on that alone. "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," Ruscio wrote. "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."

Efforts to reach black student leaders at Washington and Lee Monday night were unsuccessful. On Twitter, many of the comments amounted to backhanded praise -- "Can we call it progress when it took this long?" and "100 years late ... FINALLY" --  for the university's decision.

At the university, however, some have spoken out (prior to Tuesday's announcement). A student op-ed in The Spectator, a conservative student publication, which attracted many favorable comments, said that "we should not give in to bully tactics" from the Committee.

As to removing the flags from beside Lee's statue, the column said this: "The Committee also demanded that the university remove all Confederate flags from its property, including the flags in Lee Chapel. The vague wording of this demand is troubling to say the least. Does this group want the school to march through Graham-Lees [a dormitory], police-style, and strip all rebel flags from students’ walls? Such an invasion would not only violate the Constitutional guarantee to freedom of speech, but it would also undermine the traditions of student autonomy and self-governance that have been hallmarks of this University since, well, the days of Robert E. Lee’s presidency. Even if The Committee is not salivating at the prospect of Orwellian totalitarianism on this campus, their call for the removal of Confederate flags from Lee Chapel remains worrisome by itself. It would be ludicrous to assume that the university’s display of Confederate flags in Lee Chapel indicates institutional support for slavery or racism."

 

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