Dear President Dudley and members of the Board of Trustees,
It hardly matters now whether our 1870 name change was due, in the day, to the cachet of Robert E. Lee’s name, or to his service as president of Washington College. Most likely it was some of each. We can never know how it sat with all those people already laboring at and invested in the school, those whose ongoing, steady dedication had kept it going, if on institutional life support, until his arrival. The result in any case was that during Lee’s presidency, during a time of widespread regional deprivation, Washington College was somehow pulled back from the brink of extinction. New, forward-thinking disciplines were added to an outmoded curriculum. Change and growth occurred. The school’s visibility was raised, as were more funds than might have been expected during those times.
For that alone our school owes Lee, and always will. Today we question if, after 150 years, his name should remain on the institution. Do we owe him that much? Looking at it from today’s perspective, in a far more informed and thus also more complex and nuanced context, that question must be re-examined, and the issues raised by it must also be deeply examined and considered with an open mind.
There can be no doubt that, on balance, what Lee did for the school while its president is positive. Yet, in the longer run, what his name has brought us, in the fullness of time, is not. For about a century, Lee’s name was a valuable asset. Since then, it has become a costly liability to a growing extent in an ever-increasing number of ways.
Given the impression of sanctity connoted by Lee’s long-standing presentation in Lee Chapel, that building might as well be the consecrated space it has never officially been. Its seeming reverence becomes more unfortunate with each passing day. The stories handed down about Lee’s time here include enough lost cause propaganda to constitute a veritable honor violation. Those false tenets of revisionist history, once they were added into the overall narrative, became part and parcel of the lore, and all that was elevated far too quickly – and deeply – into the myth we have inherited.
That myth, specious from the outset, has, especially of late, been repeatedly and egregiously hijacked by all sorts of white supremacist groups whose racial views Lee might find more acceptable than their behavior, which he would deem, at best, ungentlemanly. I am sure Lee would certainly not welcome such hooligans to our campus, nor would he want the institution, in this scenario a relatively innocent bystander, to be found guilty by association and thus tarred with the same brush as those outside agitators.
This visible celebration of Lee’s confederate-culture canonization on our campus is, logically enough, interpreted by many, both inside and outside W&L, as institutional approval of, and agreement with, or, at the least, acquiescence to what he supposedly stood for, as defined by those aforementioned entities outside the university.
The institution’s own gratitude to a leader who gave the gift of self, vision and commitment to the longer-term well-being of the school is, currently, totally lost within that. In our age of dumbing down, this is more disappointing than surprising.
Thus the question becomes whether or not we can salvage the tub, and hopefully the baby, as we finally, once and for all, rid ourselves of that rancid racist bathwater which was visited upon us, in a way that the institution, actively or passively, embraced, during a time when doing so was perfectly acceptable or even advantageous in polite society. All that lost cause scripture has not previously been disavowed in any ongoingly convincing official way, for so long now that the outside world can, not without reason, assume our institution still embraces that twisted interpretation of history.
We must tell the world in no uncertain terms that this is not who we are or who we want to be. To that end, taking Lee’s name off the school daily becomes more necessary. 150 years is by far the longest the school has gone without a name change, and I’d say we’re about due. While we cannot know how Lee would have felt about his name being added to Washington’s in the first place, it seems safe to assume he would wouldn’t want it there if it brought harm to the school in any way.
Circumstances driving this shift away from all things confederate have been gathering momentum at least since the massacre at Mother Emanuel Church, and too many more recent racially-driven murders in the name of law and order have further fanned the flames of righteous indignation, because the nation has thus far failed to actually live up to those noble concepts upon which it was supposedly founded, by, among others, our initial namesake, whose case I will not address, though addressing Washington’s name is eventually bound to become unavoidable.
Events elsewhere have forced our hand. We can no longer kick the confederate can down the road. The hard questions of our history, institutional and national, must be asked, genuinely examined, and discussed in a way to give all constituent voices seats at the table and a chance to be heard, and answered with a consensus collectively reached in which all are part of the story and that all find acceptable.
That process has already begun, and is to be saluted and commended, but not allowed to become a laurel upon which we think we can yet rest. That is a long way off. To be successful, this will be a lengthy process of unlearning and relearning. In an ongoing way, this is essential to the very validity of the University, especially if we want it to be what we like to think it is.
Let us all constructively help it to progress, and may wisdom prevail.
Class of 1973