7 W&L students demand removal of Confederate flags, decry view of Lee's legacy
The crypt of Gen. Robert E. Lee is located on the main floor of Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University.
Posted: Wednesday, April 16, 2014 10:52 pm
By Luanne Rife | The Roanoke Times
Some Washington & Lee University law students want the university to live by its honor code and stop glorifying its namesake by acknowledging the dishonorable side of both Robert E. Lee and W&L.
Seven multiracial students, calling themselves The Committee, have demanded that W&L remove the flags of the Confederacy from the campus and Lee Chapel, acknowledge and apologize for participating in chattel slavery, recognize Martin Luther King Day on the undergraduate campus and ban neo-Confederates from marching across campus to the chapel on Lee-Jackson Day.
If their demands are not met by Sept. 1, they will engage in civil disobedience.
University President Kenneth Ruscio on Wednesday issued a letter to the W&L community that said “we take these students’ concerns seriously. The issues they have raised are important, and we intend to address them.”
Ruscio said W&L invites a prominent speaker during MLK Legacy Week; the undergraduate faculty decides whether classes are held on MLK day; the eight battle flags in Lee Chapel, representing armies of the Confederate States of America, are educational and historical, and the university does not observe Lee-Jackson Day.
His message did not indicate whether W&L would meet any of the students’ demands, but that he invited them to meet with the University Committee on Inclusiveness and Campus Climate that has been holding focus groups on these same issues.
The students said that they emailed the committee four days ago and had yet to hear a response.
Washington & Lee last fall announced W&L Promise, a program that covers tuition for students whose families earn less than $75,000 a year as a way to broaden the student body diversity along “social-economic, geographical, racial, ethnic — the widest possible use of the term,” Ruscio said then. The private school in Lexington, among the nation’s first universities, has in recent years promoted itself as an inclusive, diverse institution.
Anjelica Hendricks and Dominik Taylor, two of the seven law students who formed the protest committee, said they bought into W&L’s message at first. Both grew up in Virginia and understand the culture but also know that history needs to be presented in its context.
“As a native of Virginia, I understand that every prestigious school in Virginia is named after a slave owner. I went to James Madison University,” Hendricks said. “JMU was very comfortable. The name of the institution didn’t matter. It was all about the atmosphere.”
She found W&L and Lexington welcoming when she visited, but the experience soured immediately upon moving in.
“During orientation we had to go inside Lee Chapel and sign an honor contract to uphold our honor according to the honor of Robert E. Lee,” she said. Signing that contract in the shadow of a slave owner, and beneath plaques honoring Confederate soldiers and battle flags bowing to a movement to keep black people enslaved is hurtful, she said.
“I’m a native of Richmond. I know what it’s like to remember the past; however, I didn’t feel the racism and disrespect as I did in being asked to uphold an honor that aligns with the views of Lee,” she said.
The Committee draws upon the honor code in presenting its grievances. “The time has come for us, as students, to ask that the university hold itself responsible for its past and present dishonorable conduct and for the racist and dishonorable conduct of Robert E. Lee.”
Lee, a native Virginian and West Point graduate, resigned his commission in the U.S. Army at the outbreak of the Civil War and commanded the Army of Northern Virginia during most of the fighting. He was named president of the then-Washington College in Lexington months after his surrender at Appomattox and died in office in 1870. The college trustees added his name to George Washington’s almost immediately. The former commander-in-chief of Confederate forces is buried in Lee Chapel. Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson is buried nearby in Lexington.
Taylor said that even if the university does not officially celebrate Lee-Jackson Day, it hurts students and faculty of color by granting a permit to neo-Confederates to march across campus and hold a ceremony at Lee Chapel. The private university can ban this group, the law students said.
“They are not entitled to not be offended,” said Brandon Dorsey, commander of Camp 1296 of the Lexington-based Stonewall Brigade of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who each year organizes Lee-Jackson Day in Lexington. “Second, it’s an indictment on the university that they aren’t better educating their students on the values and principles that Lee stood for that they would consider having these demands met.”
Dorsey said Lee was called the “marble man because he was considered exemplary for his behavior toward others.” He said Lee only had slaves when he acted as executor of his father-in-law’s estate for a brief period of time and that he released them.
The students said that benign view of Lee whitewashes history.
Lee’s wife inherited 196 slaves upon her father’s death in 1857, and the will required that they were to be freed within five years. Historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor, who wrote “Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters,” has said that Lee continued to work the slaves for five years to make the estates more profitable. He broke up families, hired slaves to other families and petitioned the court to extend their servitude. They were granted their freedom on the same day the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect.
The students want W&L to acknowledge that Lee owned slaves and oversaw their beatings.
Dorsey said W&L’s alumni would protest if the university bowed to the students’ demands to “remove Lee’s legacy.” He said he isn’t surprised by the demands and suspects liberal professors are behind the movement just as they were in pressuring the city of Lexington to ban all but government flags from its street poles. Dorsey’s group lost a lawsuit against the city’s flag ban.
“The university is a hotbed of these kinds,” he said. “They would fit better in Communist China than in the United States. They don’t have the right to control other people’s actions.”
Ruscio wrote in his letter that he impaneled a special committee last year “to explore the history of African Americans at Washington and Lee and to provide a report to me and to the community.” So far, the group has “met in only a preliminary manner,” he said.http://www.roanoke.com/news/w-l-students-demand-removal-of-confederate-flags-decry-view/article_45941b3e-c5db-11e3-8e04-001a4bcf6878.html?TNNoMobile