Washington and Lee University to Remove Confederate Flags Following Protests

T. Rees Shapiro, Washington Post, July 8, 2014

Washington and Lee University expressed regret Tuesday for the school’s past ownership of slaves and promised to remove Confederate flags from the main chamber of its Lee Chapel after a group of black students protested that the historic Virginia school was unwelcoming to minorities.

President Kenneth P. Ruscio’s announcement was a surprising move for the small, private liberal arts college in Lexington, which has long celebrated its Southern heritage. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee served as the university’s president after the Civil War, his crypt is beneath the chapel, and the school has gingerly addressed its ties to the Confederacy and its having profited from the possession and sale of slaves.

The Confederate banners–battle flags that Lee’s army flew as it fought Union forces–have adorned the campus chapel that bears Lee’s name since 1930, and university officials said they were a nod to history and not a message intended to offend anyone. Others, however, see the flags as hate symbols representative of slavery, racism and grievous times in the nation’s history.

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Founded in 1749, the school that became Washington and Lee was endowed in 1796 with a $20,000 gift from George Washington, the nation’s first president. The school was subsequently named Washington College in his honor. After Lee died in 1870, it became Washington and Lee University. The chapel was also renamed to honor Lee.

Ruscio’s announcement came just a few months after a group of black law students, known as “the committee,” wrote to the Board of Trustees urging changes that they said would make minority students feel more welcome. Black students make up about 3.5 percent of the school’s enrollment of 2,277.

The students implored administrators to meet a list of “demands,” including a formal apology for the school’s ties to slavery. They also asked that the school remove Confederate flags from the chapel–a national historic landmark since 1961–near a memorial to Lee, where students gather for school events.

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In his letter, Ruscio publicly apologized for the school’s ownership of about 80 slaves during the period from 1826 to 1852, some of whom were forced to build a dormitory on campus.

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{snip} Black students said they felt support from some white students, but committee members also received anonymous hate mail from self-described “rebels” who railed against their campaign.

In interviews, black students said they felt uncomfortable attending school events in the chapel, where the Confederate flags were clearly visible. “Students don’t have to sit in the same room as the flags anymore,” said law student Brandon Hicks, a member of the committee. “I feel like we made a tremendous difference.”

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But the decision to remove the flags from Lee Chapel also drew expressions of outrage.

“It’s a disgrace for them to besmirch Lee’s military honor,” said Brandon Dorsey, commander of a unit of the Sons of Confederate Veterans based in Lexington. “As far as I’m concerned, they should go ahead and remove his name from the school. I don’t think they’re worthy of his name.”

Dorsey said the university was, “in effect, desecrating Lee’s grave,” and he predicted a backlash. “I don’t think we’ll let it stand. It’s going to be long, nasty fight.”

Ruscio’s announcement said the flags in the chapel were reproductions hung in 1995, replacing original Confederate battle flags that had been displayed near the Lee memorial. As part of a new agreement with Richmond’s American Civil War Museum, the school’s Lee Chapel museum will display the restored original flags on a rotating basis. The museum, beneath the main chapel, is open to the public and is reached through a separate entrance.

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The students on the committee had also demanded that the university denounce Lee’s “participation in slavery.” Ruscio defended Lee’s role as an educator at the school and said he “will not apologize for the crucial role [Lee] played in shaping this institution.” But Ruscio declared that “Lee was an imperfect individual living in imperfect times.”

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