If you walk around campus at Washington and Lee University, my alma mater, you’ll see everything you’d expect from an elite liberal arts college in rural America: idyllic red brick buildings juxtaposed against a perfectly manicured green lawn, a mostly white student body exchanging laughs as they happily mingle on school grounds, a mix of old and nascent intellectuals debating the merits of “cultural relativity” in an interventionalist world. That is, until you stumble into Lee Chapel, the eponymous lecture hall, once a burial site, that honors the great Southern general and former school president, to find its walls bearing those pale stains that signal the fresh absence of a long-hanging piece of wall art.
Though not literal, these stains represent the Confederate battle flags removed two years ago this week by the university after decades lining its most cherished building. Installed four score and six years ago (just one year off from the ultimate irony), the flags proudly flew until the university’s president, Kenneth Ruscio, ordered them to be taken down despite widespread resistance from alumni, students and other groups. This bold move preempted the wave of Confederate flag controversy that has since confronted hundreds of Southern institutions, many of which share Washington and Lee’s nominal affiliation with Robert E. Lee.
But whether or not the flags are waving, Washington and Lee remains unwavering in its commitment to its latter namesake. Lee Chapel still hosts Lee’s corpse and the school’s most important events. Lee’s famous honor system (“that every student be a gentleman”) still governs academic life. Campus newspapers still vehemently endorse his character. He is held in demigodly regard by former and current students alike, joining their Southern brethren in undying support for their sacred war hero.
When you ask Lee loyalists — the liberal-arts-educated ones, at least — how they can support a man who fought to uphold slavery, nowadays you’ll likely hear an evolved position that insists upon relativity and nuance: “You have to treat historical events in context,” one fellow alumnus told me. “Slavery was a widely accepted institution in the mid-1800s; it was just the way things were. Lee’s support for and participation in it was no less honorable than his contemporaries, or even our Founding Fathers.”
In a country whose race relations still bear the residue of its original sin, this stance has become a go-to talking point for Southern apologists clinging to their heritage by caveating its slave-owning roots. It’s a convenient and even slightly empathetic perspective that rids them of the cognitive dissonance we so often experience with historical heroes made ethically questionable by the passing years.
But it is through this discomfiting, cognitively dissonant lens that Ruscio has implored Lee loyalists to look back on their favorite Confederate general. “Affection for and criticism of historical figures living in complicated times are not mutually exclusive positions,” he reminded the Washington and Lee community in 2014. “Lee was an imperfect individual living in imperfect times. Lee deserves, and his record can withstand, an honest appraisal by those who understand the complexities of history.”
In these words, Ruscio rejected the tone-deaf idol worship that has become the noisiest narrative for those defending Lee. Without asking them to jettison their reverence entirely, he insisted on viewing history not through rose-colored glasses but corrective lenses (as it were) to overcome our skewed vision toward and blind loyalty to a man just as human — just as morally inconsistent — as the rest of us. He requested that they treat slavery not as a justifiable blotch on Lee’s legacy, but as an untenable shortcoming among otherwise honorable contributions that should make their socially constructed pedestals wobble a bit.
Two years since Ruscio removed the Confederate battle flags from Lee Chapel and left those figurative stains on its walls and its namesake, the country has taken important if symbolic steps to remove the far more visible stains left on American society by its most heinous atrocity. Yet in a time and playing field still unleveled by slavery and its apologists, we can no longer make excuses for those who perpetuated its institution, however gallant we know them to be.
Yes, we should still brandish Lee’s accomplishments with the well-deserved, crowdsourced zeal we’re accustomed to; but qualifying his ties to slavery as a mere product of his time should fall on deaf American ears — not least because the cries of our oppressed brothers and sisters of color still echo from disturbingly close range.
Adam Lewis is a Brooklyn-based writer and 2010 graduate of Washington and Lee University.
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