Something extraordinary happened last week at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. The president of the private college, where Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee served as president after the Civil War and is interred beneath Lee Chapel, apologized for the school’s past ownership of about 80 slaves and promised to remove Confederate flags on prominent display in the chapel’s main chamber.
It was a bold thing to do. And you could hear the collective gasp below the Mason-Dixon Line as Southerners imagined messing in any way with their beloved general’s final resting place. Some said touching the flags near Lee’s body is a “desecration of his grave.”
Baloney. Lee was all about Virginia, and he took over that university to help forge his commitment to reunification. College President Kenneth P. Ruscio was following in Lee’s footsteps when he acknowledged the concerns of a group of African American law students, who said the flags offended them and made them feel unwelcome.
Let’s remember, flags are symbols. My Czech immigrant parents will still blanch at the sight of a Soviet flag and what that symbolized to them. Most Americans understand that Nazi flags are deeply offensive to Jews. And yet, we have a hard time acknowledging that the Confederate flag doesn’t give the warm fuzzies to all Americans.
In fact, we have a hard time acknowledging the role slaves were forced to play in building this country.
When Americans tour Washington, it’s easy to miss the fact that slaves helped build two potent symbols of American freedom: the Capitol and the White House.
“Really? I did not know that,” a tourist at the U.S. Capitol said when I asked her whether she knew the painful history of our nation’s signature building.
There is a single stone in the basement of the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center that acknowledges the labor, skill and sweat of people forced to build a symbol of freedom. And there are six words describing the people who built the Capitol — “many of them enslaved African Americans” — in the official visitors center film about the Capitol.
It took an act of Congress to make just this happen. In 2007, a Slave Labor Task Force issued its report after WRC (Channel 4) reporter Ed Hotaling’s story about the Treasury Department receipts he found that paid slave owners $5 a month for each slave that worked on the Capitol. Congress finally passed legislation to acknowledge this awful history.
At the White House, the slaves who helped build the president’s home aren’t honored on the building. But the White House Historical Association lists the names of some of them — according to a government payroll — on its Web site: Jerry, Jess, Charles, Len, Dick, Bill and Jim undoubtedly were slaves leased from their masters.
More context, more history, more stories. And more understanding of the terrible legacy of slavery, which lives on even with an African American president occupying the White House.
You’re an immigrant, your granddaddy never owned slaves, so why should you care? Here’s why: It’s only because of the shameful legacy of slavery that our country became the kind of wealthy, free and mighty place your granddaddy would want to immigrate to. This is still the story of all Americans, no matter where your people came from or when they came.
“To ignore the fact that one of the oldest republics in the world was erected on a foundation of white supremacy, to pretend that the problems of a dual society are the same as the problems of unregulated capitalism, is to cover the sin of national plunder with the sin of national lying,” Coates wrote.
Taking down a few flags at a small university is only the tiniest of gestures. But it’s a start.
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.