Lee’s legacy

At Va. col­lege named for the gen­eral, a new reck­on­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY SU­SAN SVRLUGA

The mar­ble statue of the Con­fed­er­ate gen­eral — large as life — dom­i­nates the chapel where stu­dents gather for many of the year’s hal­lowed aca­demic events. A floor be­low sits the family crypt of Gen. Robert E. Lee, his tomb il­lu­mi­nated in the still shad­ows. The school, Wash­ing­ton and Lee Univer­sity, pos­sesses Lee’s pa­pers, his em­broi­dered vel­vet slip­pers — and, of course, his name.

This small col­lege town has long been de­fined by its two ven­er­a­ble schools, Wash­ing­ton and Lee and the Vir­ginia Mil­i­tary In­sti­tute. And it has long been de­fined by its two most fa­mous men, Lee and Stonewall Jack­son. With the gravesites and homes of the Con­fed­er­acy’s two lead­ing gen­er­als in this city of 7,000, Lex­ing­ton has be­come a shrine for those who re­vere their fallen cause.

The vi­o­lence that en­gulfed Char­lottesville in Au­gust made clear the firestorm that can be ig­nited by that kind of sym­bol­ism and jarred this com­mu­nity into con­fronting its his­tory head-on. In such a small

place, the lega­cies of Lee and Jack­son are per­va­sive, di­rect and per­sonal. And they are com­pli­cated. Here, the men weren’t just mil­i­tary gen­er­als but in­flu­en­tial aca­demics and church lead­ers.

At Wash­ing­ton and Lee, a pri­vate lib­eral arts school, that com­plex past and the quest to rec­on­cile it with the present have taken cen­ter stage. Schol­ars are con­fronting the most trou­bling as­pects of the univer­sity’s his­tory, fac­ulty mem­bers are openly de­bat­ing the legacy of slav­ery, and a com­mis­sion has been charged with mak­ing rec­om­men­da­tions to the pres­i­dent by the end of the year.

“I haven’t put any con­straints on what the com­mis­sion can think about, talk about, or rec­om­mend,” said Wil­liam Dud­ley, who was in­au­gu­rated as pres­i­dent last month.

What hap­pened in Char­lottesville was “shock­ing and sur­real and hor­ri­fy­ing,” Dud­ley said in his of­fice in Wash­ing­ton Hall, a bust of Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton in his win­dow over­look­ing Lee Chapel and the slop­ing lawn.

Dud­ley cre­ated the com­mis­sion on in­sti­tu­tional his­tory and com­mu­nity be­cause it seemed so clear that many prob­lems to­day stem from the way his­tory is told and un­der­stood, or mis­un­der­stood.

The world doesn’t slow down to think of­ten enough, he said: “Peo­ple are all very ea­ger to take ac­tion, and to know what ac­tion is go­ing to be taken. I think the most im­por­tant ac­tion is to spend some time learn­ing and think­ing.”

Some grad­u­ates have asked for as­sur­ance that Wash­ing­ton and Lee of­fi­cials will con­tinue to honor Lee’s legacy at the school, that the name will not be changed, that the statue will re­main in the chapel.

Fail­ing to do so, they warned, could harm ev­ery­thing from fundrais­ing to ad­mis­sions to alumni re­la­tions.

Cor­bet Bryant, an at­tor­ney from Dallas who grad­u­ated in 1968 and sent five of his six daugh­ters to the school, ac­knowl­edges the fraught his­tory of Lee and his alma mater. There’s Lee as univer­sity leader and lead­ing na­tional fig­ure in rec­on­cil­i­a­tion af­ter the war, Bryant said. And there’s Lee as wartime gen­eral, fight­ing to se­cede and to main­tain slav­ery. The school once owned slaves.

“If the idea is to cleanse Wash­ing­ton and Lee, you can’t change his­tory,” Bryant said. “Those events hap­pened, no­body can be proud of that.

“Does that make any­one who went to a school [with such a his­tory] com­plicit? I have trou­ble with that the­ory. You can’t change his­tory.”

The past feels very present in this pretty Shenan­doah Val­ley town, with its well-pre­served 19th-cen­tury homes, small restau­rants and shops, and the cen­turies-old col­lege cam­puses. It’s ev­i­dent in street names such as Rebel Ridge, the six-story Robert E. Lee Ho­tel down­town, the crowds that cel­e­brate the birth­days of Lee and Jack­son ev­ery Jan­uary.

In 2011, af­ter the Sons of Con­fed­er­ate Vet­er­ans hung Con­fed­er­ate flags from all the city-owned poles, the City Coun­cil voted to al­low only U.S., state and lo­cal flags.

“Of course, it made peo­ple very an­gry,” said Mimi El­rod, who was mayor at the time. Ev­ery year since, a crowd has gath­ered at her house on Lee-Jack­son day to protest, some­times singing “Dixie.”

“Things are chang­ing in­cre­men­tally,” she said.

But in Septem­ber, lead­ers of the small stone church at the edge of Wash­ing­ton and Lee’s cam­pus — the church where Lee once wor­shiped and served as war­den — voted to re­move his name and be known sim­ply as Grace Epis­co­pal Church, as it had been be­fore his death.

A month af­ter torch-bear­ing white su­prem­a­cists marched at the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia, some mem­bers of the English depart­ment at Wash­ing­ton and Lee took their own stand. “This com­mu­nity has prof­ited by slav­ery,” they wrote on­line. “We are com­plicit in its harms.”

The col­lege, they wrote, “is named af­ter two slave­hold­ing gen­er­als with pow­er­ful lega­cies. . . . If it were ever right to cel­e­brate the con­tri­bu­tions of Robert E. Lee as an ed­u­ca­tor, that time is past. Lee’s pri­mary as­so­ci­a­tion, to many Amer­i­cans and across the world, is with white supremacy.”

That prompted heated backlash.

“I love that school, and it has a great his­tory that it should be proud of,” said Jonathan Miles, who grad­u­ated in 1987 and lives in Hous­ton. “I don’t want to see it be put into a de­fen­sive crouch when it doesn’t have to be.”

The school has been re­named mul­ti­ple times, such as in 1776 when it be­came Lib­erty Hall. Wash­ing­ton, while U.S. pres­i­dent, gave a gift of stock that saved it from fi­nan­cial ruin, and it be­came known as Wash­ing­ton Col­lege. Af­ter the Civil War, Lee be­came a trans­for­ma­tive pres­i­dent of the col­lege, es­tab­lish­ing the law school and in­tro­duc­ing new cour­ses of study.

Its honor code, which Dud­ley said has been in place since at least the 1840s, is a defin­ing value.

Now, he’s also em­pha­siz­ing the im­por­tance of in­creas­ing di­ver­sity at the school. Eighty-two per­cent of the 1,800 or so un­der­grad­u­ates are white.

“We don’t have great di­ver­sity here — why is that?” said Kassie Scott, a se­nior from New Jersey. “Maybe it’s un­com­fort­able for peo­ple to come here, given the sym­bol­ism, the his­tory.

“I think we have a very wel­com­ing com­mu­nity — I don’t know that ev­ery­one makes it here to find that out. That’s un­for­tu­nate for us, too, be­cause we miss out” if the com­mu­nity isn’t di­verse, she said.

A sopho­more, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause of her role at the school, said she and her family felt un­com­fort­able dur­ing the ad­mis­sions tour inside Lee Chapel. “It was strange for me, as for many stu­dents of color, to be in front of Lee’s body while some­one talks to you about how to be a gen­tle­man,” she said.

But she loves the col­lege and feels com­fort­able there. She sees changes. A few years ago, the univer­sity re­moved the replica Con­fed­er­ate flags from the chapel. Of­fi­cials have ac­knowl­edged the con­tri­bu­tions that en­slaved peo­ple made to the cam­pus.

She said she hopes the new pres­i­dent’s com­mis­sion won’t be sym­bolic, and that the univer­sity can make it more clear that although Lee “was good for this cam­pus, he was hor­ri­ble in a lot of other ways.”

Wash­ing­ton and Lee shares a bor­der — and the legacy of the Civil War — with Vir­ginia Mil­i­tary In­sti­tute. But the way VMI is ap­proach­ing that his­tory is dif­fer­ent, qui­eter.

On VMI’s im­pos­ing cam­pus, with its tow­er­ing Gothic Re­vival build­ings, a mon­u­men­tal statue of Stonewall Jack­son stands be­fore bar­racks fac­ing the pa­rade grounds.

At the be­gin­ning of ev­ery aca­demic year, school of­fi­cials bring the in­com­ing class of cadets, known as rats, to the Civil War bat­tle­field the school owns. Weath­ered split-rail fences line the edges of the bat­tle­field, with red­dened grass stretch­ing to­ward an old barn and, in the dis­tance, blue-tinged moun­tains ris­ing out of the fog.

They teach them the his­tory of the Bat­tle of New Mar­ket, how the corps of cadets was called to fight in 1864 and charged into the face of en­emy fire, turn­ing the tide of bat­tle in fa­vor of the Con­fed­er­acy. Ten cadets were killed.

The brav­ery and loy­alty shown dur­ing the fight is cen­tral to VMI’s iden­tity. Each year the new cadets take the cadet oath there and charge onto the bat­tle­field.

“We’re not rec­og­niz­ing their con­tri­bu­tions to a bat­tle for the Con­fed­er­acy,” said Col. Ste­wart MacIn­nis, a VMI spokesman. “We’re rec­og­niz­ing their demon­stra­tion of sol­dierly qual­i­ties that we want to in­cul­cate in cadets to­day.”

Like­wise, they honor Jack­son for his bril­liance as a mil­i­tary strate­gist and his con­tri­bu­tions as a long­time pro­fes­sor at the school, MacIn­nis said.

They haven’t hung Con­fed­er­ate flags or played “Dixie” at VMI in decades, he said. But the school is con­ser­va­tive, and tra­di­tions evolve slowly, if at all. It’s more com­plex than it might seem to out­siders, though. The school also hon­ors Jonathan Daniels, a grad­u­ate and civil rights ac­tivist who was shot and killed in 1965 when he stepped in to save a young black woman from a man point­ing a gun at her.

In Septem­ber, a month af­ter the deadly vi­o­lence in Char­lottesville, the VMI Board of Visi­tors is­sued a state­ment re­ject­ing ha­tred and big­otry and en­dors­ing “con­tin­u­ing to honor all those who are part of the his­tory of the In­sti­tute. We choose not to honor their weak­nesses, but to rec­og­nize their strengths.”

Mi­nor­ity en­roll­ment has held steady for sev­eral years at about 20 per­cent of the 1,700 cadets, MacIn­nis said. “We are overly rep­re­sented with white folk, we are,” he said. That is a big con­cern for the school.

“There are prob­a­bly some peo­ple that have the im­pres­sion that VMI is not a wel­com­ing place for what­ever rea­son — they don’t even give us a sec­ond thought,” MacIn­nis said.

Some stu­dents say that his­tory is not a bar­rier. “The his­tory is def­i­nitely a sell­ing point for this place,” said Catherine Berry, a 21-year-old se­nior from North­ern Cal­i­for­nia. “There are a lot of tra­di­tions we pride our­selves on. . . . The cadets here, we’re all in agree­ment that these stat­ues are part of the his­tory, part of what we strive to be as great lead­ers.”

Col. Keith Gib­son, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the VMI mu­seum sys­tem, which runs the bat­tle­field, the cam­pus mu­seum and the Stonewall Jack­son House, said con­tro­versy around the Civil War is as old as the war it­self.

“I don’t think it’s in any­one’s in­ter­est to pre­tend that pe­riod didn’t ex­ist . . . . We still live in its long shad­ows,” he said.

“I think we have a very wel­com­ing com­mu­nity — I don’t know that ev­ery­one makes it here to find that out.” Kassie Scott, VMI se­nior


TOP: Burr Datz con­ducts a tour of Lee Chapel at Wash­ing­ton and Lee Univer­sity in Lex­ing­ton, Va. The chapel was built while Gen. Robert E. Lee was pres­i­dent of the school. ABOVE: Wash­ing­ton and Lee stu­dents Matt Bryson, Chace Won­der­lic and Emma Rabuse study on cam­pus.


Catherine Berry, a cadet at VMI, stands in front of a plaque hon­or­ing Jonathan Daniels. The VMI grad­u­ate and civil rights ac­tivist was slain in 1965 while try­ing to help a young black woman.

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