I’m writing in my personal capacity to encourage you to remove Robert E. Lee’s name from the school.
As you may know, I founded and serve in the leadership of the W&L Advocate Coalition (WLAC), a group
of alumni and allied W&L community members who share the idea that the university needs to change
in deep ways. My grandfather (Henry Woods, ’42) and cousin (Eloise Priest ’02) attended W&L as well.
It’s not hard to look around the Commonwealth of Virginia at the moment and see statues falling and
institutions revising their practices and naming around symbols of white supremacy. If Washington and
Lee does not use this moment to change its name, I believe it will eventually stand alone as a promoter
and symbol of hate and the Confederacy. This makes it more likely to attract more rallies like the one
that killed Heather Heyer in Charlottesville.
I believe the school needs to revisit its opposition to changing the name because of Lee’s role at the
school. Meaning is socially dependent and we need to come to terms with the fact that most members
of the public don’t think of Robert E. Lee primarily as an educator. This was true when W&L chose to ask
him to run the school in 1865, when he died in 1870, and has been true any time since. Even then, the
social salience of Robert E. Lee and associations with the Confederacy has only increased throughout the
past decade. It used to be the case that students opposed or neutral to his veneration but didn’t mind it
enough (such as myself) would still enroll at W&L. Since the Black Lives Matter movement has led to
giant shifts in public opinion and increased awareness of symbols of white supremacy, I believe those
students will stop looking at W&L and enrolling. That will lead to an increasing polarization in the
student body and make W&L more attractive to those whose beliefs are animated by hate.
I’m also asking you to remove Robert E. Lee’s name from the school because the use of Robert E. Lee’s
memory at W&L and beyond has enabled and justified the racial discrimination that accompanied post-
Civil War America. As David Blight’s Race and Reunion convincingly shows, the emphasis on Robert E.
Lee’s military strategy and heroic personal qualities (along with that of other Confederates) was a way
to unify a social order around the exclusion of African-Americans in the U.S. without saying so directly.
Lee’s memory placed Union and Confederate soldiers on the same moral plane -eliding a discussion of
the cause the Confederacy fought for. Reconstruction and its immediate aftermath were some of the
only times in U.S. history where the promise of democracy and liberation for African-Americans was
nearly achieved. The restoration of Confederate soldiers and generals such as Robert E. Lee in public
opinion was a direct ideological challenge to Reconstruction and democracy in the U.S. This challenge to
Reconstruction helped solidify a social order that subjugated former slaves and marginalized groups in
the Jim Crow social system. The exclusionary meaning of memorializing a Confederate such as Lee has
been reinforced when the Confederate battle flag signaled conservative resistance during the Civil
Rights movement, through terror attacks in Charlottesville and Charleston that centered Confederate
imagery, and by white nationalists in the present day.
Please note that the decision to remove symbols of white supremacy is just an initial step to making the
campus more inclusive, taking a full accounting of the university’s history, and orienting the university
toward breaking down class barriers. I hope the University administration will be a partner in changing
the name and in all those efforts going forward. Thank you for your time and consideration.
Taylor Woods ‘08