What's in a Name?

In June, Washington and Lee University will announce whether it will change its name, which honors a Confederate commander. The decision can't make everyone happy.

May 17, 2021
 
Emma Coleman
A protest in March at Washington and Lee.

Washington and Lee University is -- in part -- named after Robert E. Lee. Four months after the commander of the Confederate States Army surrendered at Appomattox, he was invited to be president of what was then called Washington College, a role he filled for five years. He is revered by many for his work at the university, which was renamed to honor him in 1870.

Lee’s presence at the university goes beyond the name. His body is held at the campus’s Lee Chapel, and there are portraits of the general across campus. Before 2016, the chapel was the final destination of the annual Lee-Jackson Day parade, part of the Virginia state holiday honoring Lee and fellow Confederate general Stonewall Jackson.

The university has made some changes. It’s removed Confederate flags, canceled visits from Confederate groups and changed the way it talks about its history. This year, the campus hired its first associate provost for diversity and inclusion. In the past four years, 46 percent of faculty hires have been people of color.

But the fight over Lee’s legacy at the university has continued, as the administration is pinned between vocal alumni and parents who want to see traditions continue, and students and faculty who feel that change is long overdue.

Earlier this month, Mike McAlevey, rector of the Board of Trustees, announced that a decision on the name would be made by the board in June. For supporters of the change, there's not currently consensus on what a replacement would be. While some have suggested W&L University, members of the alumni group Not Unmindful, which supports the change, have volunteered other options. While there hasn't been as much momentum toward removing the name of George Washington (himself a slave owner), many see the opportunity as a chance to start fresh.

Alison Bell, a professor of anthropology at Washington and Lee and a graduate of the university, said tensions around the name and Confederate iconography heightened in 2017, after violence at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. The killing of George Floyd and nationwide protests last summer redoubled the conversation, as statues and flags venerating Confederates came down across the country.

In July 2020, faculty voted 188 to 51 to change the name. The university, Bell said, can’t control the connotations of the word “Lee.”

“Nationally and internationally, we can’t control those perceptions and public events like the Jan. 6 incursion on the Capitol. That’s what’s in the public eye, those Confederate flags being waved,” she said. “If we choose to remain aligned with the Confederacy, we’re really going to be, in many people’s view, aligning ourselves with white supremacy.”

In 2018, a panel at the university released a report with recommendations for the institution’s treatment of historical memory. Some of those recommendations, such as renaming buildings and replacing portraits of Lee in military dress, have been enacted by the administration. Others, such as converting Lee Chapel into a full museum, have not. The panel did not recommend changing the name of the university or of the campus sports teams, the Generals.

In March, students held a protest asking the university to change the name, or at the very least, hold a special meeting of the Board of Trustees to consider it.

"Whether it’s today or in 2040, until you decide to change the name of this institution, I can assure you that most Black students will be wary, at the very least, of committing to and staying at this school," one student, Enuma Anekwe-Desincé, told the crowd. "By continuing to uphold and honor Robert E. Lee, you are showing us and the world, who and what matters to you, and it is not Black people or people of color."

Otice Carder, a sophomore who was involved in organizing the protest, said that despite attracting what he estimates was 500 people from a university with an enrollment of only 1,820, the event didn’t receive any response from the administration.

“Not even an email regarding the event was sent, and over 500 students participated,” he wrote in an open letter to President William Dudley. “How do you think that made all of us feel? On a campus where many of us already feel ostracized, we were put in a position where it was obvious that our voices must not matter.”

Carder, who is gay, is transferring from Washington and Lee this year, he said, in part because of the culture he perceives at the institution.

“I want the best for W&L, for what it gave me, but I couldn’t continue to be in a place where I wasn’t able to feel like myself or be myself or to face harassment for being who I wanted to be,” he said in an interview. “I recognize and I think a lot of people do that changing the name isn’t going to immediately fix the racism and the toxic culture that kind of envelops W&L, but I think it’s a start if we’re going to make it feel open and welcoming to bring other people in with diverse perspectives.”

Campus culture is something that students have also tried to draw attention to. According to its 2020 enrollment report, only 3.4 percent of undergraduates at Washington and Lee are Black. In comparison, the population of Virginia, where the university is located, is about 20 percent Black.

At another protest in April, students gathered around a letter and list of demands. They took aim at the administration for enforcing civility during disagreements and putting the burden of change on students of color. Organizers put particular focus on the role of Greek life at the university, which 80 percent of students are involved in.

One student, who was involved in organizing that protest and wished to remain anonymous, said that student activists want to move beyond the symbolic gestures wrapped up in Washington and Lee’s name and legacy, but they have faced challenges.

“We wanted to take the conversation to a different place where we would institute harder, but more constructive systemic change,” said the student, who is a person of color. “[But] we got so much blowback over even symbolic gestures like changing the name that we realized that we had to put a lot of our effort into getting people to start at square one with the name.”

Some students in recent years have tried to draw attention to the use of the N-word on campus. In 2018, the Ku Klux Klan came to the area, passing out leaflets reading "K-K-Keep the Name the Same." The university called the group abhorrent and offered security escorts for students, but some felt the incident was reflective of something deeper that the university couldn’t shake.

“This is a place where different white supremacists feel comfortable coming,” the student said.

While there have been some students advocating to keep the name, the main group opposing the change is an organization of alumni and parents called Generals Redoubt. In the past year, the group has been involved in sending letters to the administration about the name and legacy, arguing that Lee should be honored for his personal qualities and leadership of the university, rather than his involvement in the Confederacy.

“I am dismayed by the superficial attacks being written by individuals who have never studied Lee’s entire life and thus have no insight into his character,” wrote alumnus William M. S. Rasmussen in a letter circulated by the organization. “Surely we can pardon Lee for Confederate service if we can forgive George Floyd’s long criminal record by naming an endowment after him.” (Last year, Black alumni endowed a fund named after Floyd to support the Office of Inclusion and Engagement.)

Recently the organization has advertised free merchandise for supporters, with slogans like “Retain the Name” and “General Lee’s College.” The group offers to deliver the T-shirts and koozies to campus. Generals Redoubt did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

“Unfortunately, you face a binary choice: capitulation (either in an accelerating cadence to constantly escalating demands, or immediately, on the premise that a quick surrender may save most of the physical plant, excepting statues of course),” wrote alumnus Kazimierz Herchold to Dudley and the board, in a letter circulated by the organization. “Or, you can draw the line, and muster the courage and fortitude to declare that faculty, administration, and students who find the place and its history abhorrent can and should leave immediately.”

The university, for its part, says that it is committed to fostering a diverse and equitable community, and that significant efforts are underway to make the institution better.

“Washington and Lee University supports the right to freedom of expression and peaceful protest, and stands with those demanding fundamental changes to systems and practices that perpetuate racial inequality and injustice. This stance is rooted in our institutional values, and in our educational mission, which commits us to diversity and inclusion and obligates us to apply our talents and resources in the service of the public good,” a spokesperson said via email. “We believe every person deserves to feel safe and welcome at W&L and we are constantly working to create a community in which all of our members can thrive.”

Bell, the professor, said that no matter what the decision on the name is, she’s happy it will be announced in June, when classes aren’t in session.

“I’m a little concerned about, will there be retaliation against student activists if the name is changed? If the name isn’t changed, some people have feared it will be seen as a kind of permission to continue maligning the students who have campaigned for the name change,” she said. “That’s my main concern -- making sure whatever the reaction is the campus stays safe and students stay safe and supported.”

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