Edward Valentine’s memorial sculpture of Robert E. Lee adorns the front of the Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University. (Norm Shafer for The Washington Post)

The marble statue of the Confederate general — large aslife — dominates the chapel where students gather for many of the year’s hallowed academic events. A floor below sits the family crypt of Gen. Robert E. Lee, his tomb illuminated in the still shadows. The school, Washington and Lee University, possesses Lee’s papers, his embroidered velvet slippers — and, of course, his name.

This small college town has long been defined by its two venerable schools, Washington and Lee and the Virginia Military Institute. And it has long been defined by its two most famous men, Lee and Stonewall Jackson. With the gravesites and homes of the Confederacy’s two leading generals in this city of 7,000, Lexington has become a shrine for those who revere their fallen cause.

The violence that engulfed Charlottesville in August made clear the firestorm that can be ignited by that kind of symbolism and jarred this community into confronting its history head-on. In such a small place, the legacies of Lee and Jackson are pervasive, direct and personal. And they are complicated. Here, the men weren’t just military generals but influential academics and church leaders.

At Washington and Lee, a private liberal arts school, that complex past and the quest to reconcile it with the present have taken center stage. Scholars are confronting the most troubling aspects of the university’s history, faculty members are openly debating the legacy of slavery, and a commission has been charged with making recommendations to the president by the end of the year.

“I haven’t put any constraints on what the commission can think about, talk about, or recommend,” said William Dudley, who was inaugurated as president last month.

What happened in Charlottesville was “shocking and surreal and horrifying,” Dudley said in his office in Washington Hall, a bust of George Washington in his window overlooking the sloping lawn and Lee Chapel.

Dudley created the commission on institutional history and community because it seemed so clear that many problems today stem from the way history is told and understood, or misunderstood.

The world doesn’t slow down to think often enough, he said: “People are all very eager to take action, and to know what action is going to be taken. I think the most important action is to spend some time learning and thinking.”

Some graduates have asked for assurance that Washington and Lee officials will continue to honor Lee’s legacy at the school, that the name will not be changed, that the statue will remain in the chapel.

Failing to do so, they warned, could harm everything from fundraising to admissions to alumni relations.

Corbet Bryant, an attorney from Dallas who graduated in 1968 and sent five of his six daughters to the school, acknowledges the fraught history of Lee and his alma mater. There’s Lee as university leader and leading national figure in reconciliation after the war, Bryant said. And there’s Lee as wartime general, fighting to secede and to maintain slavery. The school once owned slaves.

“If the idea is to cleanse Washington and Lee, you can’t change history,” Bryant said. “Those events happened, nobody can be proud of that.

“Does that make anyone who went to a school [with such a history] complicit? I have trouble with that theory. You can’t change history.”

The past feels very present in this pretty Shenandoah Valley town, with its well-preserved 19th-century homes, small restaurants and shops, and the centuries-old college campuses. It’s evident in street names such as Rebel Ridge, the six-story Robert E. Lee Hotel downtown, the crowds that celebrate the birthdays of Lee and Jackson every January.

In 2011, after the Sons of Confederate Veterans hung Confederate flags from all the city-owned poles, the City Council voted to allow only U.S., state and local flags.

“Of course, it made people very angry,” said Mimi Elrod, who was mayor at the time. Every year since, a crowd has gathered at her house on Lee-Jackson day to protest, sometimes singing “Dixie.”

“Things are changing incrementally,” she said.

But in September, leaders of the small stone church at the edge of Washington and Lee’s campus — the church where Lee once worshiped and served as warden — voted to remove his name and be known simply as Grace Episcopal Church, as it had been before his death.

A month after torch-bearing white supremacists marched at the University of Virginia, some members of the English department at Washington and Lee took their own stand. “This community has profited by slavery,” they wrote online. “We are complicit in its harms.”

The college, they wrote, “is named after two slaveholding generals with powerful legacies. . . . If it were ever right to celebrate the contributions of Robert E. Lee as an educator, that time is past. Lee’s primary association, to many Americans and across the world, is with white supremacy.”

That prompted heated backlash.

“I love that school, and it has a great history that it should be proud of,” said Jonathan Miles, who graduated in 1987 and lives in Houston. “I don’t want to see it be put into a defensive crouch when it doesn’t have to be.”

The school has been renamed multiple times, such as in 1776 when it became Liberty Hall. Washington, while U.S. president, gave a gift of stock that saved it from financial ruin, and it became known as Washington College. After the Civil War, Lee became a transformative president of the college, establishing the law school and introducing new courses of study.

Its honor code, which Dudley said has been in place since at least the 1840s, is a defining value.

Now, he’s also emphasizing the importance of increasing diversity at the school. Eighty-two percent of the 1,800 or so undergraduates are white.

“We don’t have great diversity here — why is that?” said Kassie Scott, a senior from New Jersey. “Maybe it’s uncomfortable for people to come here, given the symbolism, the history.

“I think we have a very welcoming community – I don’t know that everyone makes it here to find that out. That’s unfortunate for us, too, because we miss out” if the community isn’t diverse, she said.

A sophomore, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of her role at the school, said she and her family felt uncomfortable during the admissions tour inside Lee Chapel. “It was strange for me, as for many students of color, to be in front of Lee’s body while someone talks to you about how to be a gentleman,” she said.

But she loves the college and feels comfortable there. She sees changes. A few years ago, after some law students objected, the university removed the replica Confederate flags from inside Lee Chapel. School officials have acknowledged the contributions that enslaved people made to the campus.

She said she hopes the new president’s commission won’t be symbolic, and that the university can make it more clear that although Lee “was good for this campus, he was horrible in a lot of other ways.”

A different approach

Washington and Lee shares a border — and the legacy of the Civil War — with Virginia Military Institute. But the way VMI is approaching that history is different, quieter.

On VMI’s imposing campus, with its towering Gothic Revival buildings, a monumental statue of Stonewall Jackson stands before barracks facing the parade grounds. Some of the cannons he used when he taught here are lined up, their wheels painted bright red.

At the beginning of every academic year, school officials bring the incoming class of cadets, known as rats, to the Civil War battlefield the school owns. Weathered split-rail fences line the edges of the battlefield, with reddened grass stretching toward an old barn and, in the distance, blue-tinged mountains rising out of the fog.

They teach them the history of the Battle of New Market, how the corps of cadets was called to fight in 1864 and charged into the face of enemy fire, turning the tide of battle in favor of the Confederacy. Ten cadets were killed.

The bravery and loyalty shown during the fight is central to VMI’s identity. Each year the new cadets take the cadet oath there and charge onto the battlefield.

“We’re not recognizing their contributions to a battle for the Confederacy,” said Col. Stewart MacInnis, a VMI spokesman. “We’re recognizing their demonstration of soldierly qualities that we want to inculcate in cadets today.”

Likewise, they honor Jackson for his brilliance as a military strategist and his contributions as a longtime professor at the school, MacInnis said.

They haven’t hung Confederate flags or played ‘Dixie’ at VMI in decades, he said. But the school is conservative, and traditions evolve slowly, if at all. It’s more complex than it might seem to outsiders, though. The school also honors Jonathan Daniels, a graduate and civil rights activist who was shot and killed in 1965 when he stepped in to save a 17-year-old black woman from a man pointing a gun at her.

In September, a month after the deadly violence in Charlottesville, the VMI Board of Visitors issued a statement rejecting hatred and bigotry and endorsing “continuing to honor all those who are part of the history of the Institute. We choose not to honor their weaknesses, but to recognize their strengths.”

Minority enrollment has held steady for several years at about 20 percent of the 1,700 cadets, MacInnis said. “We are overly represented with white folk, we are,” he said. That is a big concern for the school.

“There are probably some people that have the impression that VMI is not a welcoming place for whatever reason — they don’t even give us a second thought,” MacInnis said.

Some students say that history is not a barrier. “The history is definitely a selling point for this place,” said Catherine Berry, a 21-year-old senior from Northern California. “There are a lot of traditions we pride ourselves on. . . . The cadets here, we’re all in agreement that these statues are part of the history, part of what we strive to be as great leaders.”

Col. Keith Gibson, executive director of the VMI museum system, which runs the battlefield, the campus museum and the Stonewall Jackson House, said controversy around the Civil War is as old as the war itself.

“I don’t think it’s in anyone’s interest to pretend that period didn’t exist. . . . We still live in its long shadows,” he said.

Nick Anderson contributed to this report.

Get updates on your area delivered via email