At Ole Miss, the statue of a Confederate soldier has been a powerful symbol and a flash point for decades. A riot erupted near the monument in 1962, killing two people, when the first black student tried to enroll at the university. As the school moved away from many of its traditions over the years — taking down the state flag with the Confederate emblem, replacing its “Colonel Reb” mascot — pro-Confederate groups have rallied around the statue, and opponents have vandalized it.
The statue is one of the first things people see when they walk onto campus.
“That’s why it is urgent that we have it moved,” said Associated Student Body President Joshua Mannery, who is African American. “It sends the message that our university’s past, white supremacy and racist history is at the heart of our institution.”
Last year, groups representing students, faculty and staff voted to move the statue, and the interim chancellor announced that the university was beginning the legal process of moving it to the cemetery.
“It’s a piece of our past that needs to be preserved,” Mannery said, so that people can learn from the complex history of the school, which shut down during the Civil War when most of its students went to fight for the Confederacy. But the cemetery was a more appropriate place for the memorial than the heart of campus.
University officials estimated that it would cost between $900,000 and $1.2 million to relocate the monument, enhance the cemetery with headstones and create a memorial to black soldiers in the Civil War. It planned to raise private funds to pay for it.
But even with campus leaders unified in support, the process stalled. In January, the Mississippi Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning tabled the university’s request to move the statue, requesting more information. On Thursday, with Confederate monuments falling around the country, the board approved it.
“The Board reviewed the detailed plans for the new site, considered events on college campuses across the South involving Confederate monuments, and listened to the University’s various constituency groups,” Ford Dye, the board’s president, said in a statement Thursday.
Ole Miss Chancellor Glenn F. Boyce welcomed the decision and thanked the students who had reignited the discussions and researched and developed the proposal to move the monument. In a message to campus, he said they would move as quickly as possible. “Now is the time for change,” Boyce said.
It was a huge relief, Mannery said, and humbling to be there at a moment people had spent so many years pushing for. Now they can press for other changes, he said, including addressing alumni who fly the Confederate flag on game days or still dress up as Colonel Reb.
“The fight isn’t over,” Mannery said.
It’s also not just at Ole Miss. On Wednesday, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill lifted a freeze on changing names on buildings and places on campus. The moratorium had been in place since 2015, after school officials decided to rename Saunders Hall, an academic building named after William L. Saunders, who was an alumnus, trustee and leader of the Ku Klux Klan. After the vote, Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz said he was excited for the future “in which every member of our campus community knows they belong and can thrive.”
The University of Nevada at Las Vegas removed the Hey Reb! statue from campus this week, and the university’s president said the future of the school’s mascot is also up for discussion. The mascot for the Rebels has evolved over the years, changing from its earliest incarnation as a wolf in a Confederate uniform. In the 1970s, students voted to drop the Confederate references but maintain the Rebels name. An online petition calling for a new mascot has gotten more than 4,600 digital signatures.
Another petition with more than 3,600 digital signatures calls for saving the mascot, saying the Confederate ties were rightfully removed and that it symbolizes “a rebel and a mountain man. A westerner, a pathfinder, and a rugged individual.”
Tyler D. Parry grew up in Las Vegas cheering for the Runnin’ Rebels. Now an assistant professor at UNLV, a historian who studies public memory and the legacy of slavery in the United States, he said denying that the mascot evokes the Civil War is a losing argument. “A rebel always connotes Confederates," he said.
“Las Vegas was called the Mississippi of the west for a reason,” he said. “It had aspects of Jim Crow segregation that were as rigidly enforced as anywhere in the South.."
He tells his students from the West not to feel detached from the history of the South. ”UNLV’s mascot is reflective of how strong the legacy of the Confederacy has been in the United States.”
The University of Alabama plans to remove plaques honoring students who served in the Confederate army, and members of the student cadet corps who defended the campus, from their site in front of the university library to a “more appropriate historical setting.” Trustees will also examine building names, school officials said.
At Virginia’s Washington and Lee University, where Robert E. Lee was president after the Civil War and where his tomb is located, school officials have made changes over the years, removing Confederate flags and emphasizing Lee’s contributions as an educator. In 2017, when white supremacists rallied and committed violence in support of a Charlottesville monument, the school’s president, William Dudley, commissioned a group tasked with examining the university’s history. In 2018, Dudley announced that the private university would find ways to tell its history more fully but that the name of the school would not change.
Earlier this month, Dudley wrote to alumni and parents of his frustration, sadness and outrage over the death of George Floyd and racial inequities. “Our commitment to making Washington and Lee a more diverse, inclusive, and supportive institution has never been more important or more urgent,” he said.
An online petition with 2,700 digital signatures calls on the administration to do more: “Without an explicit commitment to antiracist action, an institution such as ours with direct ties to a Confederate general and the perpetuation of the Lost Cause narrative remains complicit in violence against people of color.”
Trent Merchant, who graduated in 1992, said that when he was growing up in Charlotte, “there were two great men: Jesus Christ and Robert E. Lee.” But his thinking changed as the years went by, and by 2018 he was thinking the name was troubling but that the changes the school made for students and faculty were more important.
A couple of weeks ago he called a friend and said, “I’ve flipped.” Now he’s part of a growing group of alumni writing letters and thinking about potential strategies to persuade the university to change its name. The school can talk about the strides it has made, he said, “but as long as the brand of the university is one of the primary symbols of white supremacy ... nobody outside of the Washington and Lee community is going to take us seriously.
“Morally," he said, “this is the right thing to do right now.”
But the Generals Redoubt, a group of alumni and others formed to preserve the “history, values and traditions” of Washington and Lee, are not backing down. They responded to the petition with a letter reiterating their opposition to changing the school name or allowing students to receive diplomas without the portraits of George Washington and Lee.
Thomas P. Rideout, the president of the group, said Floyd’s death was tragic and that changing the culture and eliminating racism are important goals. “But we don’t think it’s an issue that removing Robert E. Lee’s name is going to resolve.”
Washington’s and Lee’s contributions to the school were transformative, Rideout said. The president and rector reaffirmed last month in a letter to Rideout that the university name would not change, he said. “But those things,” Rideout said, “can change at any time.”