Black students at Washington and Lee urge administrators to confront school’s past

A group of black law students at Washington and Lee University is urging administrators to atone for its Confederate heritage and what they call the “dishonorable conduct” of namesake Robert E. Lee.

The movement has struck a racial divide on the bucolic campus in Lexington, Va., where black students make up about 3.5 percent of the total student population.

Third-year law student Dominik Taylor, a descendent of slaves on his father’s side, said he felt betrayed by admissions representatives who touted the school’s diversity.

“They assured me it was a welcoming environment where everyone sticks together as a community,” Taylor said. “Then I came here and felt ostracized and alienated.”

Taylor is among a group of students who have urged the board of trustees to make the university more welcoming for minority students. Known collectively as the Committee, the students wrote a letter to the trustees with a list of “demands,” promising acts of civil disobedience if they see no action before Sept. 1.

The students want Confederate flags removed from the chapel. They also want administrators to ban Confederate reenactors and sympathizers from campus on the Lee-Jackson holiday in Virginia, and they ask that the university’s undergraduate school cancel classes on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The Washington and Lee law school began observing the holiday in 2013, but the undergraduate students still attend classes. Although Lee-Jackson Day, the Friday before the King holiday, is not a formal holiday on campus, the school does honor Lee annually around his birthday on Founder’s Day.

The Committee also wants the administrators to issue an apology for the university’s connection to slavery and the “racist and dishonorable conduct of Robert E. Lee,” the general who led Confederate forces during the Civil War.

The students’ efforts have surprised the private Southern school. Founded in 1749, the university is named for President George Washington, who endowed a $20,000 gift to the school, and Lee, who served as its president after the Civil War.

Lee, who died in 1870, is buried on the school grounds. His memorial inside the chapel is decorated with battle flags.

In recent years, some schools have issued formal apologies related to slavery. In 2009, the College of William and Mary acknowledged that the school owned slaves in its early years.

In response to the Committee, university President Kenneth Ruscio wrote an open letter to students stating that he had asked a “special task force” to study the history of African Americans at the school.

“While we are aware of some of that history, I believe we should have a thorough, candid examination,” Ruscio wrote.

Washington and Lee first graduated a black law student in 1969. Today, 34 black students make up 8 percent of the total law school population.

Brandon Hicks, a second-year law school student from Charlotte, said that during one recent class his professor noted that Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Hicks said that the professor emphasized that Black’s membership did not make him racist.

“I walked up afterward and said, ‘Hey, that’s kind of insensitive,’ ’’ Hicks said. “I was told, ‘It’s my class and I’ll run it as I see fit.’ ”

Second-year law student Hernandez Stroud, a native of Huntsville, Ala., said that even among black students on campus, the Committee’s actions are seen as divisive.

“I think that a lot of people believe that water could have been used to solve these issues instead of fire,” said Stroud, president of the school’s Black Law Students Association, who is not a member of the committee.

Taylor said that he was motivated to help form the Committee this semester after feeling like an outcast at the school.

“The stuff that stings the most is often unspoken,” Taylor said.

He and his girlfriend, Jessica Piltch, 25, who is white, catch glances from classmates as they walk across campus.

“We still have a big fight ahead of us,” said Piltch, who is a member of the Committee. “People need to hear this conversation and hear the pain people are going through and be respectful of it.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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