I’m not a fan of so-called cancel culture and find it absurd that protestors are now tearing down statues of Ulysses S. Grant and Francis Scott Key. Beyond the public square, though, lies a question for a small, private school, Washington and Lee University, which has already pondered changing its name. Why do I care? I went there.
A bit of background to illustrate that the name brand of Washington and Lee has been internally debated within the W&L community for years. Why? “W&L’s affiliation with its namesakes – particularly R.E. Lee – greatly limits the school’s ability to attract diverse students, faculty and staff,” observed a May 2, 2018 Report of the Commission on Institutional History and Community, a commission convened by the university. At that time, the commission did not recommend changing the name of the school. “The recommendation to retain the name is not passive. Rather, the commission thought that, at this point, efforts are better spent on concrete recommendations about how best to teach and present the university’s history. At this time, the commission believes that W&L can maintain its namesakes while being a relevant, ethical and vibrant 21st-century institution,” the report added.
Well, I would contend, it’s getting much harder to get past the name these days. General Lee is a potent icon of the Confederacy, who because of the persistent Lost Cause is now embraced by current white supremacists, as we all saw with the march of Tiki-torch bearing young white men who descended on Charlottesville, Va. from other states, to purportedly protest a push to remove a statue of Lee from a city park. With chants of “Jews will not replace us,” they evinced a message of hate with broader ambitions than preserving a statue.
These guys were not Civil War history buffs. Frankly, I doubt they really know much about or understand the Civil War. I doubt any of them have ever sat down and read a biography of Lee, who was in many ways a walking contradiction: a man who referred to slavery as evil, yet fought on the wrong side of “the War Between the States,” and managed his and his wife’s family plantations. (He also expressed an idea, that seems ludicrous in our times, of phasing out slavery on a “gradual” basis instead of providing for emancipation. How exactly would that work?)
Hand to God, when I saw the white supremacists marching around Charlottesville in the spring of 2017, prompted by the Lee statue issue, I thought, my word, that could have been Lexington, Virginia. Those horrible people could have been marching up “the Hill” past Lee Chapel and along W&L’s beautiful Colonnade. The school’s reputation would be stained by outsiders. I generally believe you need to define yourself before others define you, and in the wake of Charlottesville, W&L launched its laudable Institutional History program, which includes an examination of Lee. It goes way beyond Lee. After all, the school started in 1749.
Lee was offered command of the Union Army, but declined in order to defend his home state of Virginia and by extension, the Confederate States of America. For this, he is labeled a traitor and now a symbol of systemic racism. His easily recognizable face is prominently displayed in a Lincoln Project ad, “Flag of Treason,” aimed at dimming President Trump’s reelection chances. Right there, two prominent figures of the Civil War, Lee and Lincoln, remain at the forefront of our political debates in 2020.
Let’s be honest: it’s bad for the brand of a liberal arts school renowned for its academic rigor, intellectual honesty, and civility to appear to be tied to the legacy of slavery. (Incidentally, I don’t have much of a horse in this race in that I don’t give major donations to the university, I’m not a famous alumna, and I have no role in the alumni organization. I’m just a very proud graduate.) To be clear, I have absolutely no desire to erase Lee from history or the school’s history. Learn the history. Know it. Understand it. But don’t appear to be glorifying the wrong cause. On the other hand, tearing down statues of George Washington really serves no useful purpose when it comes to redressing systematic racism now. It takes a special kind of self-righteous ignorance and indignation to only consider that Washington was a slaveholder and ignore everything else about him.
As an aside, George Washington gave a tiny Virginia school $20,000 in James River Canal stock, so his name is paired with Lee as the namesakes. But, why Lee? It was not for racist symbolism. Robert E. Lee served as a president of the university from after the Civil War until his death in 1870.
It can be interpreted that Lee took the job as president of what was then Washington College in an effort to redeem himself and maybe restore his own reputation. In deciding to accept the position as president of the university, he wrote to his wife: “Life is indeed gliding away and I have nothing good to show for mine that is past. I pray I may be spared to accomplish something for the benefit of mankind and the honour of God.”
The school was on the brink of failing and his role there involved rebuilding in conjunction with his exhortations in public life to restore the union. The school can examine, highlight and relate Lee’s role at the helm of the college after the Civil War. Indeed, an ongoing effort is under way to grapple with the conflict and contradictions surrounding Lee then and now. From the school’s website: “Lee, in particular, has become the subject of increasing scrutiny for his central role as the military leader of the Confederacy. We unequivocally denounce the motivations behind the Confederate cause that Lee chose to defend as well as the views of individuals and groups who employ Confederate imagery to promote an agenda of white supremacy, racism, and xenophobia.”
Lee is credited for starting what became the Commerce School, the Department of Journalism (we call it the “j-school”), the student body-adjudicated Honor Code, and the Speaking Tradition (you greet everyone whose path you cross out of respect). It’s this part of his history as an educator that some proponents of keeping the name balk at the notion of rebranding the university. I wouldn’t suggest that they are all racists. But I would suggest they rethink this position. You don’t want to be a part of the problem, even tacitly.
Not long after Charlottesville, Hurricane Harvey flooding here in southeast Texas spurred me to move valuables to our second floor, including photo albums, my college diploma and treasured decorative ware. When a W&L classmate checked in on our well-being during the protracted storm, I related that I had safeguarded my sheepskin because, no doubt, it’s going to become a collector’s item with Lee’s name on it.
I’m no apologist for Lee. I don’t see him as a man in full, as some have simplistically revered him, but a fractured man with some laudable achievements countered by some colossal, grave misjudgments.
How does the Lee brand impact me? My heart sank during a high school reunion weekend in Montclair, N.J., when a classmate and I were chatting and he (a black man) recalled that I went to Washington and Lee. I was simultaneously surprised he remembered that about me and concerned he might think that by some association with the name I harbor racism. We continued a friendly discussion and I tried to put Lee’s presence at the university in context. It was not easy.
If you have to keep explaining something, you may want to rethink how you are expressing yourself. A school still named for Lee in this day and age is too difficult to explain.
Understanding history, though, requires context. You must view an event from multiple perspectives and appreciate how a confluence of factors can stream together at one point in time to cause a major change, such as a war or a civil rights movement. Such things never happen for a single reason. There’s a catalyst, but never just one driver. As a W&L history major, I learned how professional historians use primary documents – not anecdotes, conventional wisdom or sentimentality – to gather what took place and why.
I learned about the Tulsa massacre in a W&L history class, History of Violence in America. For that class, I wrote a paper on the civil unrest in 1967 in Newark, N.J., and learned how bringing in white law enforcement from other parts of the state to control strife in Black neighborhoods was counterproductive for policing and dangerous for the residents. I’m saddened to see with our current events that we have not learned the after-action lessons from how law enforcement cracked down in the 1960s. Here we are, some 50 years later, witnessing police brutality against people peacefully assembling to protest police brutality. When does this vicious cycle end?
When my Dad arrived at W&L in 1958 from Bloomfield, New Jersey, he was excited to start school. The freshmen (all men at that time) filed into Lee Chapel during Orientation to hear a speech by the then university president, Francis Pendleton Gaines. Dad related to me that a man strode with a cane to the podium on the stage of Lee Chapel wearing a white suit and black grosgrain ribbon tie and this Yankee freshman thought to himself, “who the hell is this, Colonel Sanders?” By Dad’s telling, the first words out of President Gaines’s mouth were: “Ginimen (gentlemen), this is a fine ol’ Southern institution and I aims to keep it that way!” Poor Dad thought, “then what the Hell am I doing here?”
Maybe Lee really believed in reunifying the nation. Maybe we can do a better job now. We just don’t need the wrong brand name.
By Katharine Fraser, B.A., History and Journalism, W&L ‘93