My University Is Named for Robert E. Lee. What Now?

Despite the horrific timing of his remarks, President Trump’s defense of Confederate statues last week revealed a viewpoint that’s widely held in this country — and not just by neo-Nazis or white supremacists. Plenty of Americans find themselves conflicted about recent efforts to remove monuments to the Confederacy, be they statues or the names of buildings, highways or schools.

This is especially true at my (beloved) alma mater. I’m a 2017 graduate of Washington and Lee University, which is named for George Washington, an early benefactor, and Robert E. Lee, who served as college president from 1865 until his death in 1870.

Over the past several years, some students have begun to advocate that the university do more to distance itself from our second namesake, while others have come to Lee’s rescue with increasing vigor. As one peer wrote in a conservative campus publication called The Spectator, “Robert E. Lee evinced an unusual and relative show of honor and integrity that should not be slandered by his role in the Civil War.”

I have many friends who share this opinion. Although they would never associate with white supremacists or attend alt-right rallies, they get upset at any suggestion that Washington and Lee change how it honors Lee’s legacy on campus.

It’s true that the retired Confederate general played an important role in our university’s history. But if the Washington and Lee community is not more willing to critically evaluate one of our patron saints — and modify how we celebrate him — we only legitimize the “causes” of white supremacists who latch onto statues of men like Lee because they symbolize the subjugation of black people.

The school wasn’t even always called Washington and Lee. Founded in 1749 as Augusta Academy, it was subsequently renamed Liberty Hall in 1776 and Liberty Hall Academy in 1782. It became Washington Academy in 1796, after George Washington donated some $20,000 worth of James River Canal stock to the institution, effectively saving it from financial ruin.

After the Civil War, Robert E. Lee was recruited to become college president of what was by then called Washington College, a post he accepted with reservations, worried that he “might draw upon the college a feeling of hostility.” When he died in 1870, trustees voted to change the name of the school to Washington and Lee University.

In his short tenure, Lee nearly reinvented the place. He championed the sciences, joined the Lexington Law School to the college, introduced what would become our hallmark honor system and established some of America’s first collegiate journalism and business classes, and he turned down more profitable jobs to do so. He worked to ensure that Northern and Southern students studied together and pledged to devote his “remaining energies to training young men to do their duty in life.”

But this is the same Lee who led the Confederate army against the Union to preserve the status quo of slavery in our nation’s bloodiest war. Lee is often defended as a product of his time, but at least one other Virginian, George Henry Thomas, became a notable Union general. Later, as a college president, Lee was also mostly unwilling to discipline students involved in attempted lynchings and kidnappings of black women who lived nearby.

Touring our campus, though, you wouldn’t even guess that Lee was on the losing side of the Civil War.

Portraits of the man are prominently displayed, and three university buildings bear his name. One is the president’s house, in which Lee died. The second, Lee-Jackson House, is home to the office of the dean of the college and is also named for Stonewall Jackson, Lee’s military colleague in the Confederacy. The third building is Lee Chapel, which was commissioned by the retired general but not named for him until after his death.

Inside this campus landmark, where an altar might have been built, rests a gigantic, recumbent, marble statue of Lee, wearing Confederate battle gear and resting on a camp bed. (Lee is buried with his family in a mausoleum beneath the chapel.)