The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Where a statue of Robert E. Lee once stood, Duke’s chapel will have an empty space

The space where a statue of Robert E. Lee once stood. (Duke University)

A year ago, violence at a white-supremacist gathering in Charlottesville prompted protesters to topple Confederate monuments across the country. Inside Duke University’s iconic chapel, the statue of Robert E. Lee was vandalized.

In the months since Duke President Vincent E. Price ordered the Confederate general’s statue to be removed, people on campus have debated how to fill the gap left at the entrance to the chapel.

Now as students return for the new school year, Price announced what will fill the hole in Duke University Chapel: nothing.

In wake of Charlottesville, Duke University removes Robert E. Lee statue that was vandalized

The hope is the empty space will evoke this moment in history, a time when the country is reckoning in often painful ways with the past, confronting the legacies of slavery and often unsure of how to move forward.

There were many nominations for people who could be honored in Lee’s place. And there were also many who suggested leaving the space as it is — vacant.

Price concluded that was the right decision, with a plaque in the foyer explaining why the space is empty. In a letter to the campus Thursday, the university president quoted the dean of Duke University Chapel, the Rev. Luke A. Powery, who had said almost a year ago that it might represent “a hole that is in the heart of the United States of America, and perhaps in our own human hearts — that hole that is from the sin of racism and hatred of any kind.”

On Thursday evening, Powery said filling that hole with another figure could mask what’s missing, give the impression that problems had been resolved.

“That open space is also an opening,” he said, “toward the possibility of healing and hope in the future.”

While others tear down monuments, some universities are building new ones

People have long debated whether some symbols should be removed to make a statement rejecting racism or whether they should be maintained to avoid whitewashing history. Last August, ongoing protests over Confederate memorials turned deadly when white nationalists, white supremacists and others rallied to oppose the removal of a Lee statue from a Charlottesville park.

In the days that followed, monuments elsewhere toppled: Protesters used rope to pull down a bronze Confederate statue in Durham, N.C., not far from Duke, and two statues in Wilmington, N.C., and another in Knoxville, Tenn., were doused with paint.

In Baltimore, Los Angeles and San Diego, city officials removed Confederate monuments and a plaque.

At the time, President Trump tweeted that removing “beautiful statues and monuments” was “so foolish.”

At Duke, removing the statue brought backlash from some alumni who complained that political correctness had driven the decision or that university officials shouldn’t accede to the acts of vandals.

Over the past year, people at Duke have considered the university’s history with speakers, panels, a symposium on “American universities, monuments, and the legacies of slavery,” and a group project on memory at the university. Price has asked a committee to select next year a site and form to recognize “those individuals whose labor was the foundation of the wealth that created Duke University and whose hands built our campus.” The first African American students to attend Duke will also be recognized and a site chosen for an evolving exhibit on the school’s history.

Leaders of the Duke Black Student Alliance and Duke Student Government did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

Leaving the space empty marks the history, Powery said, of that very tense time last year. “It was a particular moment: Charlottesville, then the events in Durham and here at Duke. Something happened. It’s part of the memory of the institution, the memory of Durham,” Powery said. “It shouldn’t be forgotten.”

Rather, he said, the elite university should grapple with what happened and why. He hopes people will look at the open space and think about this: “How far we have to go.”