The lingering stain after the flags come down at Washington & Lee

Roundup
tags: Confederate flag, Confederate Memorials



Adam Lewis is a Brooklyn-based writer and 2010 graduate of Washington and Lee University.

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. ...





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