VIRGINIA, WHERE the Confederacy established its capital, has a fraught relationship with its history and with the racial wounds left by slavery, the Civil War, the Jim Crow era and the state’s policy of “massive resistance” to integration.
Four years ago Robert F. McDonnell (R), newly sworn in as governor, triggered condemnation when he issued what he apparently thought was an anodyne proclamation of Confederate History Month, in which he concluded that “all Virginians” must appreciate the state’s “shared” history and the Confederacy’s sacrifices. Somehow, he omitted any mention of Virginia’s half-million slaves — more than a quarter of the state’s antebellum population — who may not have shared such a benign view of the Confederacy. The governor quickly apologized and revised his proclamation.
Those sensitivities flared this spring at Washington and Lee University, a well-regarded, small private school in Lexington, Va., whose own fraught history is bound up closely with Virginia’s. In a letter to the university’s board of trustees, a group of African American law students took note of that history and made a series of demands, including that the school remove a set of Confederate battle flags that had hung on campus for more than 80 years in the apse of the chapel named for Gen. Robert E. Lee, who is buried there. Lee was president of the university for five years following the war, and after his death the school added his name to its own.
Last week Washington and Lee wisely decided to remove those flags (which are replicas of the originals first hung in 1930) from the chapel. In a statement, the school expressed regret that, for several decades before the Civil War, it owned dozens of slaves, who helped build dormitories on campus.
Predictably, groups that lionize the Confederacy and tend to gloss over the fact that “property” — read: slavery — was central to its cause indignantly condemned the university’s decision, suggesting that it had somehow denigrated Lee’s legacy. One such hothead, Brandon Dorsey, commander with the Lexington brigade of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said that if African American students “didn’t want to be offended by Lee’s legacy,” they could have chosen another school.
Understandably, officials at Washington and Lee are less enthused at being known as a bastion of racial insensitivity. Some 3 percent of the university’s roughly 2,300 students are African American, a considerably smaller proportion than that of the University of Virginia or the College of William and Mary. In deciding to remove the flags and forthrightly address its history, Washington and Lee is acknowledging it has work to do to present a more welcoming face to all students and applicants.
The Civil War and the Confederacy are integral to the history of the state and to Washington and Lee. But in the 21st century, public displays of the Confederate flag are widely taken as a racially coded provocation. The flag’s rightful place is in a museum, not in a university chapel.
Washington and Lee’s president, Kenneth P. Ruscio, agreed. He said the flags — the originals, not the replicas — will be displayed at the chapel’s museum on a rotating basis in cooperation with a Civil War museum in Richmond. In doing so, the university is moving to soothe racial wounds even as it airs the less attractive chapters of its own history.