The Board of Trustees' Decision on Lee Chapel
By Hayden Daniel ‘19
On Tuesday October 9, the Board of Trustees sent an email to the W&L community detailing its decision on several recommendations offered by the Commission on Institutional History and Community last May. Changes endorsed by the Board include the renaming of Robinson Hall and Lee-Jackson House, the removal of portraits of Robert E. Lee and George Washington in military uniforms and their replacement with portraits of them in civilian clothing, and the closing of the doors to the statue chamber containing the Recumbent Lee during university events. Each of these actions are an attempt to show “a more complete history” of W&L as recommended by the Commission’s report and President Dudley’s response to that report issued in late August. While the first two points adopted by the Board, the renaming of Robinson Hall and Lee-Jackson House, are positive steps forward, the second pair of decisions raise several questions about the trajectory of W&L’s policy toward its history.
As said above, the first two decisions from the Board are positive moves for W&L. Robinson Hall is named after John Robinson, a prominent planter who left his entire estate and 84 slaves to Washington College. In 2016, Washington and Lee introduced a historical marker beside Robinson Hall detailing the contributions made by the enslaved people owned by Washington College. Now, to erase the stain on the university’s history caused by the name of Robinson Hall, the Board has decided to rename the building Chavis Hall in honor of John Chavis, who became the first African American to receive a college education in the United States when he enrolled in the winter session at Washington Academy in 1795. Lee-Jackson House, the house where Stonewall Jackson lived when he was married to the daughter of the president of Washington College, is to be renamed Simpson House after Pamela Simpson, the first woman to become a tenured professor at Washington and Lee and served as an associate dean of the college. Both of these choices are uncontroversial and appropriate actions.
However, the decision to replace the portraits of Washington and Lee in their military uniforms with portraits of them in civilian clothing should be viewed with suspicion at best. It is considered a mark of respect and honor to portray someone who served in the military in their military uniform. The United States government even honored Robert E. Lee’s service in the Confederate army by addressing him as “General Lee,” a rank that he achieved in the ranks of the Confederate army, in official congressional hearings. However, those who wish to see the portrait removed do have an argument for its removal, even if it is one that I personally disagree with. They do not have an argument for taking down Washington’s portrait in his military uniform. The portrait in question was one of the earliest, featuring Washington in his uniform from the French and Indian War. If the argument is that if we take down the portrait of Lee in his uniform, then we have to take down the one of Washington in order to maintain artistic symmetry. Having Washington in his military uniform and Lee in his civilian clothes doesn’t make much sense if you are trying to portray the two men equally. However, why not replace the portrait of Lee in his Confederate uniform with one with Lee un his United States uniform? Lee served in the United States Army for 32 years, as opposed to his four years of service in the Confederate army, and he served with distinction in the Mexican-American War. If we put up a portrait of Robert E. Lee in his U.S. uniform, then the removal of Washington’s portrait becomes unnecessary. If the argument for removing Washington’s portrait is that it is depicting him in service to a foreign power, Great Britain, then we can just put up a portrait of Washington in his Continental Army uniform.
No explanation was given for the decision to take down George Washington’s portrait, and this action against Washington could be a sign of things to come. It is a sign that the push for a marginalization of those who owned slaves and were affiliated with the university has no limiting principle. In many conversations with liberals on campus regarding the depiction of Lee, I have heard them say that Washington is not a target for revision; only Lee is seen as a threat to underrepresented groups on campus. This move signals that Washington is not safe either, that after Lee is removed from campus, George Washington will come under greater scrutiny.
The fourth decision made by the Board of Trustees was that the doors that separate the 1883 statue chamber addition, which contains the Recumbent Lee, from the rest of Lee Chapel, will close during university events. This decision was no doubt made in response to concerns that the image of the Recumbent Lee during events such as honor orientation makes some students uncomfortable. Recumbent Lee, which depicts Lee in his Confederate uniform, no doubt causes some students discomfort, but closing the doors to obstruct the view of the statue will not fix the underlying problem. Even if concerned students cannot see Lee, they still know that he is there, so closing doors is only a quick fix to the problem. Those who truly feel unease while in Lee Chapel will not stop feeling that unease just because two doors are closed. They will still desire radical change to Lee Chapel regardless of whether they can see Lee, because to them it is about the idea of Lee, not the physical manifestation. The more radical students on campus want the idea of Lee, not just the physical portrayals of him, eradicated from campus. It is not enough to close doors; the very name of “Lee Chapel” will engender fear and unease next. Then, the portrait of Lee in civilian clothes will not be able to hide what he really did, for even in civilian clothes Lee was a slaveholder. Eventually, the name of Washington and Lee will come under attack because it makes students feel uncomfortable and uneasy to be on a campus that bears the name of someone who owned slaves and fought for the Confederacy. Overall, what difference at this point does it make if the doors are closed? Students will still be in a building called Lee Chapel and in view of a portrait of him in the civilian clothes in which he held people in bondage.
That is the true danger of the last two recommendations. Giving in to demands formulated based on how a certain group feels leads to radical change after radical change until we will not be able to recognize ourselves anymore. We will end up erasing the history, both good and bad, that makes Washington and Lee such a unique place in favor of becoming a safe-space ridden clone of Davidson or Wellesley that attempts to coddle its students rather than expose them to the harsh realities of history and reconcile the complexity of the figures who made that history.