Off the Pedestal

Duke removes statue of Robert E. Lee. University of Texas will remove statues of Lee and 3 other Confederate leaders. Bowdoin removes plaque honoring Confederate alumni and Jefferson Davis.

August 21, 2017
Robert E. Lee (center) in Duke Chapel, prior to removal

Duke University on Saturday announced that it had removed a statue of Robert E. Lee from the entrance to the university chapel. On Sunday night, the University of Texas at Austin announced it would remove statues of Lee and three other Confederate leaders from a prominent campus location. And Bowdoin College on Saturday said that it would take down a plaque honoring Jefferson Davis and college alumni who fought for the Confederacy.

The moves over the weekend reflect increased scrutiny of honors for Lee and other Confederates, in the wake of the white supremacist rally that turned violent in Charlottesville, Va., the weekend of Aug. 11, where white supremacists said they were rallying to defend a statue of Lee.


Texas has for years been debating what to do about a group of statues honoring people with ties to the Confederacy. The statues have been widely criticized by minority students and faculty members, as well as others. In 2015, the university moved a statue of Jefferson Davis from the group to a museum.

Greg Fenves, president at UT, released a statement Sunday night, in which he announced the plans to remove the remaining four statues, including one of Lee. He said that events in Charlottesville prompted him to reconsider the statue issue, and that he has been talking with faculty and student leaders about it in the last week, before making his decision.

"The University of Texas at Austin is a public educational and research institution, first and foremost," he said. "The historical and cultural significance of the Confederate statues on our campus -- and the connections that individuals have with them -- are severely compromised by what they symbolize. Erected during the period of Jim Crow laws and segregation, the statues represent the subjugation of African-Americans. That remains true today for white supremacists who use them to symbolize hatred and bigotry."

Fenves also rejected the argument of some supporters of the statues that moving them compromises efforts to understand history. "The University of Texas at Austin has a duty to preserve and study history. But our duty also compels us to acknowledge that those parts of our history that run counter to the university’s core values, the values of our state and the enduring values of our nation do not belong on pedestals in the heart of the Forty Acres."

The Texas Tribune reported that the process of removing the statues started late Sunday night.


"I took this course of action to protect Duke Chapel, to ensure the vital safety of students and community members who worship there, and above all to express the deep and abiding values of our university," said a statement issued Saturday morning by Vincent E. Price, Duke's president. "The removal also presents an opportunity for us to learn and heal. The statue will be preserved so that students can study Duke’s complex past and take part in a more inclusive future."

The statue of Robert E. Lee has been discussed for many years but has received new attention in the last week. And some time Wednesday night, the Lee statue -- one of 10 at the entrance to the chapel -- was vandalized.

"Wednesday night’s act of vandalism made clear that the turmoil and turbulence of recent months do not stop at Duke’s gates. We have a responsibility to come together as a community to determine how we can respond to this unrest in a way that demonstrates our firm commitment to justice, not discrimination; to civil protest, not violence; to authentic dialogue, not rhetoric; and to empathy, not hatred," Price's statement said.

He also announced that he was "creating a commission, to include faculty, students, staff, alumni, trustees and members of the Durham community, to advise on next steps and to assist us in navigating the role of memory and history at Duke. The commission will look at how we memorialize individuals on the Duke campus in buildings and sculpture and recommend principles drawn from Duke’s core values to guide us when questions arise. I will ask this commission to work expeditiously."

Hundreds of Duke alumni signed an open letter to Price this week calling for the Lee statue to be removed. "As the statue remains in place, it continues to send the message to us that Duke is complacent with the presence of hateful, violent and racist iconography on its campus grounds," the open letter says.

David Wohlever Sanchez, a Duke junior, published a letter in The Duke Chronicle, the student newspaper, urging the removal of the statue.

“Lee is clearly a rallying figure for neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups and domestic terrorists, yet Confederate statues are often defended on the false pretense of ‘remembering history,’” Sanchez wrote. “Yes, history is nuanced. But being an influential historical figure does not automatically grant you a position of honor. There’s plenty of room for ‘remembering’ in museums and textbooks that offer context, not glorification.”

On Duke's Facebook page, reaction is mixed (and many of those commenting don't appear to have Duke connections). Some are praising Price, and others are threatening to stop donating and accusing Price of giving in to political correctness.


Also on Saturday, Bowdoin College announced that it was taking down a plaque honoring Jefferson Davis and 19 Bowdoin alumni who fought for the Confederacy. The plaque will be preserved in the college's archives. Davis was included because he received an honorary degree before the Civil War. The plaque was put up -- in a building that honors the Union alumni of the college -- in 1965, the centennial of the Confederate surrender.

A statement from Clayton Rose, Bowdoin's president, said, “For the last 52 years, this plaque has hung, incongruously, in a space completed in 1882 that honors the service of alumni who fought to preserve the Union and to end slavery. What occurred in Charlottesville and the subsequent national conversation have led us to conclude that historical artifacts like this that are directly tied to the leadership of a horrible ideology are not meant for a place designed to honor courage, principle and freedom. Rather, this part of our history belongs in a setting appropriate for study and reflection. Special collections is where we preserve historical objects and records and where we invite members of our community and the public to research, study and understand Bowdoin history and the lives of those connected to the college. Critically, this move explicitly preserves and acknowledges our history, our unusual relationship with Davis and the fact that there were those at the college who did not support the preservation of the Union or the causes of freedom and human dignity.”

In 2015 Bowdoin stopped awarding a prize in the name of Jefferson Davis for students excelling in constitutional law. The cash award was endowed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

In a statement announcing the end of the prize, Rose said, “It is inappropriate for Bowdoin College to bestow an annual award that continues to honor a man whose mission was to preserve and institutionalize slavery.” The college returned the endowment fund to the United Daughters of the Confederacy.


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