Dear President Dudley,
I grew up in Northern New Jersey, a product of a K-12 parochial education. I had not heard of Washington & Lee. Until W&L Women’s Swim Coach Kiki Jacobs wrote a hand-written letter to me during my junior year of high school. I was smitten.
I loved the speaking tradition. I loved the beautiful campus. I loved the accessibility to wonderful professors who always kept their doors open to further discuss class or possible career paths. I loved the friends I made (and keep today). I loved the quirky traditions that made the school feel like a community. I tried and loved grits, barbecue, and Southern-style music and dancing. I loved the continued support beyond college; just about every internship and job opportunity came from a W&L connection.
Despite my love for W&L, I was uncomfortable stepping inside the KA fraternity house. I was told I was not welcome at their parties because I was a Northerner. I was uncomfortable with the Old South Ball and the Confederate flags hanging from dorm windows. I was uncomfortable with the idea that the black/white thing seemed to still exist.
I was fortunate to have a fabulous group of close friends at my high school – whose parents had come to New Jersey from the Philippines, Egypt, and India. My high school friends opened my eyes and heart to different cultures, traditions, and food.
My mother often told me stories about her teenage years, hanging out at dances at City College in the Bronx with a wonderful boy, Colin Powell. My parents could not afford to travel the world with us, but they brought us to Spanish Mass and enrolled me in Japanese class and took me to so many local restaurants with delicious global cuisine. My parents raised me to ignore color and embrace different cultures. I thought I was ready for the world.
School taught me a sanitized version of history. Why did we skip over history once we got to the Great Depression? I realize now that I did not have a full social studies and history education. This may explain my hesitancy to take a history class at W&L. I wish I had taken some classes. Instead, I turned a blind eye and tried to quietly push away some of my new friends’ explanations of General Lee and the Old South’s traditions. I wondered..if I took a history class at W&L, what version of history would be taught? It was fascinating to be surrounded by classmates who grew up in the 1980s learning the Civil War was called the “War of Northern Aggression.” I wasn’t sure how to process the information. Every time I asked why so much in Virginia was named after Robert E. Lee, friends told me he was a complicated man, and that he did great things for the university. To this, I recommend reading Professor Locy’s opinion: https://www.thenation.com/article/society/robert-lee-washington-statue/
Working as a television reporter and producer in Norfolk, Virginia gave me a whole other side of education in the South. I remember a black anchor screaming at me, in front of the whole newsroom, because I pitched a story idea about the rate of teenage pregnancy. I printed out the story, and in the corner was a picture of a young black girl. The anchor screamed that I was a racist for printing out a story on teenage pregnancy that featured a picture of a young black girl. I didn’t even notice the picture. It turns out it was an advertisement for something unrelated – but the experience showed me I needed to pay more attention to race (when I had been taught to not notice the color of one’s skin). I felt unequipped to cover news in an area with a strong black population.
Back in New Jersey, years later, I now struggle with my beautiful diploma that hangs in our home office. When I see the diploma, I think of the wonderful W&L alumni who gave up their son’s bedroom so I could shower, sleep, and have a good meal after Hurricane Katrina. Work sent me to Louisiana a week after Katrina, to document the aftermath at the VA hospital in New Orleans. This wonderful W&L couple did not know me, but they took me in because I needed help (there were no hotels open in the area and I was sleeping in a local shelter so I could do my job).
For years, I loved looking at my diploma for what it stood for in my eyes: a special school that gave me so much opportunity and friendship. I never thought much about the faces on the diploma. Now I wonder if I should take down the diploma. Do I want the image of General Lee hanging in our house? What about my love for my school? How do I reckon that love and be the person I need to be?
After much careful thought, I am joining the growing alumni movement to push our university to drop Lee from its name and image. I am heartened to see so many classmates band together on Facebook to do the same…especially classmates who once shared their perspectives about growing up in a Southern white family…and have now turned a corner to realize that it is time for Lee to go.
As an Alumni Admissions Program interviewer, I met an impressive student a couple of years ago. After the interview, I sat inside my car outside the local New Jersey library and cried. Do you know what this student was so worried about? He was worried that he would be accused of an Honor Code violation just because he was black. Let that sink in. Despite my glowing recommendation to the Alumni Admissions Program chair, he chose a different school.
I look at my own children. As I examine their education, I find too many holes in their K-8 social studies programs at their top-rated public school district, as well as their current parochial school. So we are trying to learn more from home. My teenage son just finished reading The Hate You Give, and we just watched Selma. How do I talk to my children about the “L” in W&L? What should I say?
Generally, I think we should be careful about going down this road of cancelling people who did bad things in their lives, because it is a principle without a limit. I do not want history to be erased. I am proud of the school’s recent decisions to put history in context, have difficult and uncomfortable conversations, and to look for ways to overcome its tarnished history while never letting the community forget the past. But more needs to be done. I hope President Dudley and the Board of Trustees are listening to alumni and I hope they come to the conclusion that Lee needs to go.
Someone close to our family went through a painful divorce. When we visit the family’s home, no pictures of the former wife are found. The photos were not burned or destroyed, but they are not in plain view. Our loved one would find it painful, and we would all find it awkward, if those old wedding photos were still grandly presented in frames in the living room. Someday, perhaps the next generation will be told the story in context. The family is not revising history, but they are doing what’s right. It’s time to take Lee and keep him in the history book, reexamine his role with the university, and get rid of his painful presence every time someone says the university’s name.
Danielle Burghardt McDavit ’97
Journalism and Mass Communications Advisory Board Member
Alumni Admissions Program NNJ Committee Member