Yes, the Lee in Washington and Lee University is Robert E. Lee, not the most popular guy in American history right now, given the whole "traitor to the country for slavery's sake" turn of events. Our Sunday Long Read this week has Author Abigail Covington details the university's reaction to the Trump era, Charlottesville, and being in charge of the place where Lee is interred.
The president of Washington and Lee University, Will Dudley, understood the depth of his problem the moment he turned on the television and saw hoards of white men in collared shirts and khakis carrying tiki torches as they marched through Charlottesville, Virginia, protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee.
For nearly 150 years, the school over which he presided managed to avoid any controversies related to its namesake and former president. But with the August 2017 white supremicist rallies and riots in Charlottesville, Virginia and the reaction of President Donald Trump — “You also had some very fine people on both sides” — had come new and, in some quarters, unwelcome scrutiny over the enduring presence in the south of memorials to the Lost Cause. And nowhere was that presence more deeply ingrained than in Lexington, Virginia on the campus of Washington and Lee, at whose spiritual core sat the memorial chapel in which lay in eternal repose the remains of one Robert E. Lee. Unlike any of his predecessors, Dudley understood that this time he’d have to deal with the school’s Robert E. Lee problem. He believed he had a path toward a solution, and that it began with Ted DeLaney.
“No one has a more penetrating sense of W&L’s history and character than Professor DeLaney,” wrote the school’s provost Marc Conner in W&L’s official magazine The Columns. Now 75 years old and semi-retired, DeLaney grew up in the black neighborhood of a then heavily-segregated Lexington and has a relationship to W&L unlike any other. He started as a custodian in the early 1960s and spent twenty years as a lab technician in the school’s biology department. He then enrolled as an undergraduate, graduating cum laude in 1985 at the age of 40; he later returned as a professor in the history department where he taught courses on such subjects as Comparative Slavery in the Western Hemisphere, African American history, Civil Rights and Gay and Lesbian history.
President Dudley’s post-Charlottesville plan was to form a commission whose unenviable task would necessitate separating the myths of Robert E. Lee from the facts of his life. It would gather opinions on Lee and his legacy from the W&L community, whose constituents often contradicted each other. “W&L is a fortress of white privilege,” one alumnus would seethe during an open conference call for the school’s graduates hosted by the commission. Another would lay out the stakes in clear and troubling terms: “If the president and the board don’t heed the final recommendations of the Commission, the university will attract tourists like Dylan Roof.”
The commission would have twelve members, drawn from W&L professors, faculty, current students, and alumni. More than examining the connection between Lee and the school, Dudley wanted recommendations on ways of restructuring the Lee narrative in the wake of the nation’s renewed attention to race, history and justice. He asked Ted DeLaney to join it, and DeLaney quickly agreed.
In many ways, DeLaney’s life had been preparing him for this moment. For over thirty years, he’d wandered in the shadows cast by Confederate monuments and statues in his hometown. He’d attended convocations and welcome addresses at Lee Chapel and sat in pews built atop Robert E. Lee’s family crypt. His tolerance had been tested and fortified by each indignity he’d silently suffered and every display of hagiographic admiration he’d witnessed his friends, colleagues and students display toward Robert E. Lee. He was both fired up and exhausted; reluctant and motivated to finally take on the legacy of a Confederate god who’d haunted him all his life.
In a way, W&L was Lee's legacy, the way to ensure his name would be enshrined and that for better or for worse, he would be remembered.
Maybe he shouldn't be, and I'm glad the university that bears his name and frankly its shame is coming to terms with it 150 years later.