In many of the battles over Confederate leaders who are honored with building names and statues on campuses across the country, Robert E. Lee has not been seen as the worst of the worst. When the University of Texas at Austin removed a statue of Jefferson Davis in 2015, it let the statue of Lee stay. But after a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. -- organized on the premise of protesting the planned removal of a Lee statue -- much has changed.
Lee statues have since come down at UT and at Duke University. But if those universities were able to remove their statues, the challenges raised by Lee are far greater 70 miles away at Lexington's Washington and Lee University, which is named after both George Washington and Robert E. Lee.
“There is nothing normal about the racist violence perpetrated in Charlottesville this past weekend. White supremacist and neo-Nazi groups descended on the city, conducted a torch-lit march on the grounds of the University of Virginia on Friday night, and clashed with anti-racist counterprotesters on the downtown streets on Saturday, causing numerous injuries and one death,” WLU president Will Dudley said in a statement following the violence in Charlottesville.
“W&L and Lexington have a complex history with regard to the Confederate symbols and figures around which these hateful groups are rallying. Lee, our former president and one of our namesakes, has become a particularly polarizing figure. This gives us a special obligation to be absolutely clear about what we stand for as an institution,” he said, pointing to an explanation for Lee’s name being a part of the university, and WLU’s commitments to diversity and inclusivity.
As the events in Charlottesville have renewed energy around the push by some on campuses and off to take down Confederate monuments in the U.S., controversy and debate remain around WLU and its ties to slavery, the Confederacy and white supremacy.
Originally known as Augusta Academy, and going through several name changes before being named Washington College -- after the nation’s first president -- the institution was renamed Washington and Lee University in 1870, when Lee, who became its president just weeks after surrendering at Appomattox in 1865, died. What counts as history and what counts as veneration still isn’t settled for students, professors and alumni.
In 2014, black law students at WLU formed an organization called the Committee and demanded changes from then president Kenneth P. Ruscio, regarding Confederate flags and neo-Confederate organizers marching on campus, as well as the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
As a result, the reproduction Confederate flags at the campus’s Lee Chapel were removed and replaced with more authentic flags, which were placed in the chapel museum.
“The purpose of historic flags in a university setting is to educate. They are not to be displayed for decoration, which would diminish their significance, or for glorification, or to make a statement about past conflicts,” Ruscio said at the time. “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.”
Classes are now canceled for MLK Day, although Ruscio pushed against it as president. He urged the faculty to vote on the matter (it was up to the faculty to take action) but asked for a no vote, since the university already had other programming in place.
“The only issue that we were really debating was, ‘What is the best way to honor Martin Luther King?’” Marc Conner, WLU provost, told Inside Higher Ed. “Is it to cancel classes and do various kinds of other programming … or is it to hold classes, because King, of course, was so committed to education?”
The debate around Lee’s legacy isn’t limited to campus, either: while Lexington, Va., celebrates Lee-Jackson Day -- a Virginia holiday that celebrates Lee as well as Confederate general Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, WLU does not. There are also instances of apples being placed on the grave of Lee’s horse, which is buried at the chapel on campus, which Conner chalked up to “almost a kind of tourist industry” of people from outside the university. One of the issues the Committee brought forth was addressing instances of people dressing up in Confederate uniforms and carrying flags at Lee Chapel, which WLU officials said is against university policy.
“We’re really trying to do what an educational institution should do, which is to discuss, analyze and interpret -- and really grapple with -- the complexities of history. And that’s what universities should be doing,” Conner said. “We’re not commemorating or celebrating that history.”
“There are many stances people can take toward the historical past, and we don’t try to dictate those,” he said. “But we do try to be clear about what the facts are, and why Lee is important to the institution as university president.”
In remarks for the university’s founders day in January, Dudley noted that Lee was opposed to secession and spent more time as a college president at West Point and WLU than he did as a Confederate general. He also noted, however, that Lee “will forever be remembered primarily as a Confederate general,” and his contributions to education don’t overshadow that.
The university has also publicized its ties to slavery: enslaved people were held in bondage by the university, and at times sold to help the institution financially, until 1852.
“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 in his 2014 statements, which also highlighted a working group dedicated to documenting the contributions of African-Americans and their timeline at WLU.
Still, Lee’s legacy lives on in other ways. The garage to the president’s house -- which Lee resided in as president -- remains open at night, a nod to Lee leaving the doors open when the garage used to be a stable for his horse, Traveller, so it could come and go as it pleased.
“It’s an odd piece of folklore,” Conner said, although he maintained that the university is dedicated to the facts around Lee, not hero worship.
“Our stance is that our institutional history demands constant examination and interpretation and critical thinking,” he said. “So we do not celebrate Lee; we try to understand Lee and the whole context from which he arose. The whole nation now is having conversations that we’ve been having for quite some time.
WLU isn’t the only university to be named for the leader of the Confederate army. Lee College, in Baytown, Tex., sprang out of Robert E. Lee High School. A spokeswoman for the community college said there hasn’t been any talk about the issue, internally or externally.
“There has been no conversation internally within the college community, nor has there been conversation within the community at large as to concerns or issues with the name of the college,” Susan Smedley said in an email.
In some cases, especially at times of heightened scrutiny, controversy can arise about Lee when there is in fact no factual connection.
The University of Southern California has received flak from some students in recent days about the white horse that serves as one of its mascots, named Traveler. As documented in the Los Angeles Times, the horse's name is similar to that of Lee's horse, but the USC mascot's name is spelled with only one L, and it has no historical connection to the Confederacy.
“USC’s mascot horse is a symbol of ancient Troy. Its rider, with costume and sword, is a symbol of a Trojan warrior,” USC's history of the mascot says. “The name Traveler, spelled with one L, is a common name among horses … USC’s Traveler is and has always been a proud symbol of Troy. There is no truth to any other claims or rumors about its name.”
Questions Remain Moving Forward
On Tuesday, a 2017 WLU alumnus wrote an op-ed in The New York Times denouncing what he said was still, despite moves in recent years -- including the pushes by the Committee in 2014 -- too much veneration for Lee on campus. He pointed out three buildings named after Lee -- the president’s house, where Lee died; the Lee-Jackson House, where the dean’s office is located; and Lee Chapel, which features a statue of the general.
“Touring our campus, though, you wouldn’t even guess that Lee was on the losing side of the Civil War,” Pascale S. Toscano wrote. “Stand-alone statues and portraits of Confederate leaders, devoid of any historical information except for perhaps a plaque, don’t present a candid or nuanced account of history. They signal that these men are heroic and worthy of honor. Period.”
And discussions around Lee aren’t settled. The university recently instructed tour guides to avoid the chapel, citing logistical reasons. Toscano, who served as a tour guide, also said that he supported the move because he said the life-size statue treats Lee like a religious figure.
Others disagreed, arguing in a student publication that the chapel is a centerpiece of the institution, and that avoiding the chapel is akin to avoiding discussion and confrontation about Lee’s history with the university and American history at large.
"Lee Chapel is the centerpiece of our university’s historical heritage, and its importance reaches into all our lives as participants in this university community," student Ben Gee wrote in The Spectator. "It firmly belongs in tours of this campus, and always will so long as we value what it stands for."
For Toscano, the debate isn’t just about avoiding or not avoiding the discussion, but how the discussion plays out as well.
“History should be better contextualized on campus, and we should eschew any hagiographic imagery,” he wrote. “That the chapel itself is named for Lee, who oversaw its construction, makes sense. But the life-size statue of the general, as well as portraits of him featuring Confederate iconography, should be moved to the Lee Chapel Museum. The museum itself, which now makes scant reference to Lee’s Civil War days, must also critically engage with the offenses of a man who is the hero of plenty of children’s books sold in the gift shop.”
F. Erik Brooks, a professor in African-American studies at Western Illinois University and the author of African American Student's Guide to College Success, said that factors like the naming of buildings or monuments -- or even universities -- after Confederate figures might not have affected whether a black student would have applied in the past, but it might after recent events.
“It may be now, but a few years ago it may not [have been]” a factor, said Brooks, who as a child growing up in Montgomery, Ala., attended Robert E. Lee High School due to a bussing initiative. “I do think that as people become more conscious, that will be something that students weigh when they’re making decisions on where they attend college.”
As far as the swath of buildings named after members of the Confederacy at colleges across the country, “It will take boards of trustees with courage to address those issues.”
Sasha Edwards, secretary of the WLU Student Association for Black Unity, an undergraduate group, said that her experience -- she’s younger than Toscano, entering her sophomore year -- around Lee and the university’s association with him has been positive, and dialogue has been encouraged.
“When I first came to campus, it was kind of a hot topic amongst my classmates,” said Edwards, who is also a diversity leader for this year’s orientation week. “Knowing the general history I was walking into, it was something that needed to be talked about and needed to be explained and further broken down so I would be comfortable on campus.”
“They’ve definitely pushed for us to have roundtable discussions about different situations, including the election last year,” she said. “They want everybody to feel comfortable.”
Dudley’s statement after Charlottesville was painful to hear but also gave Edwards the confidence that the school was trying to move past its Confederate past without brushing it under the rug, she said.
And moving past the institution’s racist history also includes pushes into newer forms of diversity and inclusion, Edwards said, such as celebrating diversity among sexual orientation and religion.
“We still have a ways to go in terms of history and how complicated it is,” she said. “But we’re making strides.”