Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Va., announced Tuesday that it will remove Confederate flags from Lee Chapel after black students protested. (Stephanie Gross/The Washington Post)

Washington and Lee University expressed regret Tuesday for the school’s past ownership of slaves and promised to remove Confederate flags from the main chamber of its Lee Chapel after a group of black students protested that the historic Virginia school was unwelcoming to minorities.

President Kenneth P. Ruscio’s announcement was a surprising move for the small, private liberal arts college in Lexington, which has long celebrated its Southern heritage. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee served as the university’s president after the Civil War, his crypt is beneath the chapel, and the school has gingerly addressed its ties to the Confederacy and its having profited from the possession and sale of slaves.

The Confederate banners — battle flags that Lee’s army flew as it fought Union forces — have adorned the campus chapel that bears Lee’s name since 1930, and university officials said they were a nod to history and not a message intended to offend anyone. Others, however, see the flags as hate symbols representative of slavery, racism and grievous times in the nation’s history.

Washington and Lee joins other U.S. colleges in examining its historical ties to slavery. In 2009, the College of William and Mary acknowledged the past ownership of slaves in its early years, and in 2006, Brown University, in Rhode Island, issued a comprehensive report on its ties to the slave trade.

Founded in 1749, the school that became Washington and Lee was endowed in 1796 with a $20,000 gift from George Washington, the nation’s first president. The school was subsequently named Washington College in his honor. After Lee died in 1870, it became Washington and Lee University. The chapel was also renamed to honor Lee.

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Ruscio’s announcement came just a few months after a group of black law students, known as “the committee,” wrote to the Board of Trustees urging changes that they said would make minority students feel more welcome. Black students make up about 3.5 percent of the school’s enrollment of 2,277.

The students implored administrators to meet a list of “demands,” including a formal apology for the school’s ties to slavery. They also asked that the school remove Confederate flags from the chapel — a national historic landmark since 1961 — near a memorial to Lee, where students gather for school events.

Ruscio, in announcing the decision to remove the flags, acknowledged that “these are legitimately complicated matters, and they are often uncomfortable, too.”

In his letter, Ruscio publicly apologized for the school’s ownership of about 80 slaves during the period from 1826 to 1852, some of whom were forced to build a dormitory on campus.

“We acknowledge that this was a regrettable chapter in our history, and we must confront and try to understand this chapter,” Ruscio wrote. “Acknowledging that historical record — and acknowledging the contributions of those individuals — will require coming to terms with a part of our past that we wish had been different but that we cannot ignore.”

Confederate flags hang near a Robert E. Lee memorial in Lee Chapel. (Natalee Waters/AP)

The list of student demands prompted passionate discussions on campus and among the broader university community about how the modern university, which is also the ninth-oldest college in the country, should address issues of race. Black students said they felt support from some white students, but committee members also received anonymous hate mail from self-described “rebels” who railed against their campaign.

In interviews, black students said they felt uncomfortable attending school events in the chapel, where the Confederate flags were clearly visible. “Students don’t have to sit in the same room as the flags anymore,” said law student Brandon Hicks, a member of the committee. “I feel like we made a tremendous difference.”

Ruscio’s announcement has received the support of some alumni. “Washington & Lee University is a special place,” said Tom Rideout, class of 1963, in an e-mail. “While much of its reputation is attributed to its history and the role played by the two historical giants for whom it is named, it embraces values, well articulated in President Ruscio’s message, that is helping to develop a well equipped generation of leaders to deal with the social and economic challenges of a rapidly shrinking world.”

But the decision to remove the flags from Lee Chapel also drew expressions of outrage.

“It’s a disgrace for them to besmirch Lee’s military honor,” said Brandon Dorsey, commander of a unit of the Sons of Confederate Veterans based in Lexington. “As far as I’m concerned, they should go ahead and remove his name from the school. I don’t think they’re worthy of his name.”

Dorsey said the university was, “in effect, desecrating Lee’s grave,” and he predicted a backlash. “I don’t think we’ll let it stand. It’s going to be long, nasty fight.”

Ruscio’s announcement said the flags in the chapel were reproductions hung in 1995, replacing original Confederate battle flags that had been displayed near the Lee memorial. As part of a new agreement with Richmond’s American Civil War Museum, the school’s Lee Chapel museum will display the restored original flags on a rotating basis. The museum, beneath the main chapel, is open to the public and is reached through a separate entrance.

Hernandez Stroud, a past president of the school’s Black Law Students Association, said he was pleased with the university’s decision. “It’s a step forward,” Stroud said. “It demonstrates that if Washington and Lee is interested in continuing to be a progressive institution that recognizes and tries to appreciate all students from all walks of life, then this is definitely an indication it is serious about that commitment.”

Ruscio also wrote that he opposes the committee’s suggestion to cancel classes for undergraduate students on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. How to honor the civil rights leader has been discussed for years on campus, and Ruscio said the current offerings of service projects and community events is more productive than a day without classes. The law school, which is run separately from the undergraduate college, observes Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a holiday.

“I worry that this compelling series of events would give way to an uneventful three-day weekend,” Ruscio wrote, noting that the final decision will be made by the faculty. “Canceling classes may have symbolic significance; I prefer the substance of our current programs.”

The students on the committee had also demanded that the university denounce Lee’s “participation in slavery.” Ruscio defended Lee’s role as an educator at the school and said he “will not apologize for the crucial role [Lee] played in shaping this institution.” But Ruscio declared that “Lee was an imperfect individual living in imperfect times.”

Ruscio wrote that since April, the student group’s efforts had divided the campus and sparked vigorous debate about issues involving race.

“As challenging as these issues are, I firmly believe there is considerable common ground that we will find if we work together in a spirit of cooperation rather than confrontation,” Ruscio wrote. “I regret that the conversation seemed to begin with what divides us rather than what unites us. . . . We cannot and should not avoid these issues. Indeed, we ought to lead in addressing them.”

Nick Anderson contributed to this report.