By Chris Hoenig
Washington and Lee University administrators have agreed to remove Confederate flags from the campus chapel after protests from a group of Black law-school students.
The flags, various Confederate battle flags captured by and surrendered to the Union Army during the Civil War, have been on display in the main chamber of Lee Chapel since 1930. The ones being removed are replicas, placed on display in 1995 after the American Civil War Museum, which owns the flags, removed the originals due to deterioration from the way they were being displayed.
Best known as the symbol of the pro-slavery South, the flag reappeared during the civil-rights movement as a symbol against desegregation. Today, it is commonly used by white-supremacist and other extremist groups—the Southern Poverty Law Center counts more than 500 extremist groups that include the flag as part of their symbol.
A group of 12 Black students at the university’s law school have pushed the school’s administration for changes, charging that the school is unwelcoming to underrepresented students, especially Blacks. The students warned of organized acts of civil disobedience if the university did not take action before the new semester begins in September.
“They assured me it was a welcoming environment where everyone sticks together as a community,” student Dominik Taylor said. “Then I came here and felt ostracized and alienated.”
But in a message to the university community last week, President Kenneth P. Ruscio said many traditions will remain in place.
First established by pioneers in 1749, the Lexington, Va., school is the ninth-oldest higher-learning institution in the United States. Named Washington Academy after the nation’s first President saved the school from financial ruin in 1796 with an endowment, the university has a history that includes owning and selling slaves—but this is often hidden by school administrators.
“In 1826, Washington College came into possession of between 70 and 80 enslaved people from the estate of ‘Jockey’ John Robinson,” President Ruscio noted in his letter. “Until 1852, the institution benefited from their enslaved labor and, in some cases, from their sale.
“The University will continue to study its historic involvement with slavery. 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.
“We are committed to telling the University’s history accurately, including the stories of many individuals who should not be overlooked. That process is now under way through a special working group that was initially convened last fall and has begun to develop a timeline of the history of African-Americans at the University and to explore other ways in which we can illuminate and recognize this history.”
The fight to end slavery in America is another significant part of the school history that the protesting students say the school doesn’t approach in a respectful manner.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee accepted an appointment as the school’s president in 1865—just six months after surrendering at Appomattox. He served until his death in 1870 and is buried on school grounds. To honor his leadership, the school changed its name to Washington and Lee University shortly after Lee’s death.
The students sought a formal apology from the school for Lee’s “racist and dishonorable conduct,” a request denied by the school’s president.
“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. I personally take pride in his significant accomplishments here and will not apologize for the crucial role he played in shaping this institution,” Ruscio wrote in response to the law students. “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.”
Another issue raised by the students is how the school approaches the weekend leading to Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
While not formally recognized as a holiday by the school, Confederate re-enactors and sympathizers are a common sight on campus on Lee-Jackson Day, the Friday before King’s national holiday. While the law school began observing Martin Luther King Jr. Day just last year, undergrad students still attend classes that day, and Ruscio hopes that continues.
“I will urge the undergraduate faculty to decide this fall whether to cancel classes on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The faculty have authority over the academic calendar. I trust their judgment and will support their decision. I will recommend, however, that they not cancel classes,” Ruscio wrote. “The question has never been whether or not we ‘fully recognize’ King Day; the question is how we choose to honor Dr. King. 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.”
The protesting students are part of the 34 total Black students enrolled in the university’s law school—8 percent of all of the law school’s students. Blacks make up just 3.5 percent of Washington and Lee’s total student body.
“These important conversations will continue, as they should; they will be fruitful only if those on all sides are willing to listen to one another with respect,” Ruscio wrote. “As challenging as these issues are, I firmly believe there is considerable common ground that we will find if we work together in a spirit of cooperation rather than confrontation. I regret that the conversation seemed to begin with what divides us rather than what unites us. I hope the future is one of continued careful examination and further defining of our common purpose.
“This is also an opportunity. I cannot imagine another institution more challenged by the complexity of history while at the same time more capable of illuminating not just our own history but the wider scope of our nation’s. Our own arc of history traces that of our nation, from the founding period through the painful divide of the Civil War and up to the present time. We cannot and should not avoid these issues. Indeed, we ought to lead in addressing them.
“I hope that will be the case.”