Duke University has decided to remove the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from the campus’s chapel entrance, a decision that comes shortly after the statue was vandalized and as the country confronts questions about what Confederacy monuments represent.
Duke President Vincent E. Price authorized the removal of the statue Saturday morning from the university’s campus in Durham, N.C. Several Confederate monuments and flags across the country have either been removed or vandalized in the days following last weekend’s deadly unrest in Charlottesville.
“I took this course of action to protect Duke Chapel, to ensure the vital safety of students and community members who worship there, and above all to express the deep and abiding values of our university,” Price said in an email sent Saturday to faculty members, students, staff and alumni. “The removal also represents an opportunity for us to learn and heal. The statue will be preserved so that students can study Duke’s complex past and take part in a more inclusive future.”
Price said he consulted with faculty and staff about removing the limestone statue that bears a resemblance to Lee after its face was vandalized Wednesday night. An investigation by Duke officials includes reviewing a video from inside the chapel, according to the university.
Price criticized whoever defaced the statue, saying in a statement earlier this week that the culprit undermined the rights of Duke students and employees “to participate fully in university life.”
“We have a responsibility to come together as a community to determine how we can respond to this unrest in a way that demonstrates our firm commitment to justice, not discrimination; to civil protest, not violence; to authentic dialogue, not rhetoric; and to empathy, not hatred,” Price said.
Confederate monuments have attracted renewed scrutiny following the violence in Charlottesville last Saturday, when white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan descended on the Virginia college town about 100 miles southwest of Washington to protest the planned removal of Lee’s statue from a city park. The violent clash with counterprotesters turned deadly when a car, allegedly driven by a Nazi sympathizer, plowed into a crowd, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others.
On Monday, protesters used a rope to pull down a bronze statue of a Confederate soldier in front of a government building not far from Duke, according to the Associated Press. Eight people have been arrested. Two other statues in Wilmington, another North Carolina city, has been defaced with spray paint.
A 1914 monument of Confederate soldiers in Knoxville, Tenn., has also been defaced with paint.
In Baltimore, crews quietly removed four Confederate statues earlier this week. Officials in Los Angeles and San Diego also have removed a Confederacy monument and a plaque, respectively.
President Trump has pushed back against removing Confederate statues, making it clear that he isn’t backing down from his claims that some of the white-nationalist demonstrators had legitimate grievances about the loss of Southern “history,” and that “both sides” are to blame for the violence in Charlottesville, The Washington Post’s David Nakamura wrote.
In a series of tweets Thursday, he mourned the loss of “beautiful statues and monuments” and said removing them is “so foolish.”
And during a combative news conference Tuesday, he equated Lee and Stonewall Jackson, another Confederate general, with two Founding Fathers.
“This week it’s Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down,” Trump told reporters. “I wonder, is it George Washington next week and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”
When a reporter said that Washington and Lee are not the same, Trump responded: “George Washington was a slave owner. Was George Washington a slave owner? So will George Washington now lose his status?”
For years, people have debated whether removing such symbols is an important statement rejecting racism and ugly ideas from the past or a whitewashing of history driven by the prevailing winds of political correctness.
Some people have also called for new names for schools that evoke the Confederacy. More than 100 public schools in the United States, mostly in the South, have the names of Confederate leaders.
This week in Texas, some board members of the Dallas Independent School District expressed concern that such symbols could help perpetuate ideas such as white supremacy.
In Oklahoma City, where four schools have Confederate names, officials may change them, despite a per-school cost that would be a significant burden for the district.
And in Virginia, where there are at least 19 schools named for leaders of the Confederacy, such as Lee and Jackson, several counties, including Arlington and Prince William, are considering proposals to change that. In Fairfax County, a decision has already been made to rebrand J.E.B. Stuart High, honoring a cavalry officer.
At campuses across the country over the past couple of years, protests over racial issues ignited, with students demanding change in the way people of color are treated by school officials, police, and classmates. Many people reported hearing or seeing slurs and symbols of hatred.
Duke has had tensions over racial issues in recent years, including two years ago, when a black student said a group of white men taunted her with a chant about lynching. In 2015, more than a thousand people attended a community meeting on campus about bias incidents, with some protesters taking the stage and shouting, “Duke, you are guilty!”
Last year, student protesters pitched tents on the quad outside the administration building, sat outside the president’s office, and held signs calling for the “Duke plantation” to be dismantled and proclaiming that “Duke is nothing without black + brown labor.”
Duke officials learned on Thursday morning that Lee’s statue has been vandalized.
Price said he’s creating a commission that will look at how the university memorializes individuals on campus.
Riyanka Ganguly, president of Duke Student Government, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Last weekend, she and other student government leaders condemned the “vicious, unacceptable acts of white nationalism in Charlottesville” in a joint letter. She also wrote on social media: “Diversity unites us here at Duke. Join me in encouraging these values and speaking up against hate.”
Duke’s Black Student Alliance’s executive board did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment Saturday.
When the limestone details of Duke Chapel were being designed in the late 1920s and early 1930s, according to a history provided by Duke, the stone carver apparently was allowed to choose the subjects of the statutes. A professor at another university apparently suggested to the carver 10 appropriate people to honor there, including Methodist leaders, and three historical figures from the South: Thomas Jefferson; Sidney Lanier, a poet and musician; and Lee.