The ongoing national conversation about racism has the potential to create lasting change — at our university and more broadly. That starts with confronting our history and engaging honestly about where we want to go.
Some still don’t see the damage inflicted by honoring Lee, though his role as commander of the Confederate army is, for many, grounds to repudiate him. Although Lee created a celebrated liberal arts program as university president, his abhorrent treatment of blacks (which he called “necessary for their instruction as a race”) and promotion of slavery should preclude him from being honored by our college.
Some are shocked by the suggestion that Washington’s name is offensive. Yes, Washington was the country’s first president after leading the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War. But Washington enslaved more than 300 black people. He ordered one whipped for walking on his lawn. As president, Washington engaged in elaborate travel to and from Philadelphia to avoid triggering a Pennsylvania law that provided enslaved blacks a pathway to freedom after a certain period in the state. His dentures may have included teeth pulled from his slaves. These are not actions of a man who should be celebrated.
A 1796 gift of stock from Washington that remains part of the university’s endowment led this school, then known as Liberty Hall Academy, to be renamed Washington Academy and later Washington College. After Lee’s tenure as president, the name was changed to Washington and Lee University in 1870. Changing the name once again to break ties with perpetrators of racial terror is not asking too much.
Since Washington and Lee University integrated in 1966, many students, administrators, support professionals and professors of color have experienced painful indignities and abuse. Too often, members of the university community have dismissed these experiences. Some have asked why those colleagues came to an institution named after Washington and Lee, one that is home to Lee’s tomb. That is segregationist thinking and not appropriate.
Our university’s veneration of both men implicitly signals continuing support for racial subordination and violence. An honest accounting of the school’s history and the roles of its power structures are instructive — and necessary to lasting progress. Some white faculty members have received media attention for the petition to remove Lee’s name, but this movement has been driven by black voices. Though many white colleagues are rightly outraged over recent cases of black dehumanization, many remained silent when it was less socially acceptable to speak out.
As recently as February, when many law students, support professionals and a few professors petitioned (unsuccessfully) for students to have the option to remove images of Lee and Washington from their diploma, a significant share of tenured white faculty did not sign. Several students and faculty of color received hate messages, but there was no statement of solidarity from our white colleagues. Overt anti-black incidents, such as the Ku Klux Klan distributing leaflets on campus in 2018, also went without condemnation from many white faculty.
During a recent meeting, a white faculty member asserted that in today’s changed circumstances the board of trustees has no option but to change the university’s name.
For me and my black law school colleagues, however, circumstances are not different. What has changed is that more people are aware of and acknowledging inequities many of us have long endured.
The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement has made an association with Lee no longer sustainable. Understanding this, some faculty members have become proponents of racial justice.
In his work on critical race theory, professor Derrick Bell has argued that the “interest of blacks in achieving racial equality will be accommodated only when it converges with the interests of whites.” Washington’s name is still acceptable to some faculty possibly because they think his virtues outweigh his sins or because his long-ago donation still contributes to the university’s budget. Until it is socially, economically and politically unacceptable to be associated with both men, some may seek to maintain the status quo.
The university appointed a director of institutional history last year as part of efforts to acknowledge “both the contributions and the failings of those for whom our institution is named." But commissions and museums are not enough.
Reconciliation and progress come from addressing our past honestly and treating all people equally. At Washington and Lee University, it starts with the removal of both namesakes. Unless some are afraid of too much racial justice and equality.