Removing Robert E. Lee from our history does not eradicate racism

Erasing him from the name of Washington & Lee University would not have put a dent in the racism that still ripples through the Old Dominion or the nation
The statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond: Site of protests and protesters.

Washington and Lee University’s name won’t change, despite pressure from some faculty and alumni. The school’s board of trustees this week voted 22-6 to keep the name of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, also a former president of what was then named “Washington College,” in the name.

Lee Chapel will get a new name, along with the removal of the Lee family crypt and a sculpture of the general. From now on, it will be simply University Chapel. The school’s Founders Day is history.

In a public memo, the board said it regrets “past veneration of the Confederacy and its role in perpetuation perpetuating ‘The Lost Cause’ myth that sustained racism” and “that the university itself owned human beings and benefited from their forced labor and sale.”

“That sounds like an apology that was too long coming,” writes columnist Jennifer Rubin. “It is also a blueprint for substantive changes the school promises to make, including raising $160 million to fund the education of students regardless of financial circumstances. That means that a school that has generally served a well-to-do White population is investing in a more diverse student body.”

She adds:

That said, the school was under tremendous pressure from a collection of donors that essentially threatened to close their checkbooks if the name was changed. Opposing the name change doesn’t make anyone a racist. It does underscore the value of tradition and history. As an alumni parent, I was agnostic; as a journalist, I could understand both sides.

Whatever one thinks of W&L’s decision, the board was a model for approaching controversial issues. If talk is sometimes cheap, it can also be therapeutic. Honesty expressed with civility surely will get us further along the road to mutual understanding and resolution than destroying public property and, along with it, the goodwill we’ll need if we are to create a peaceful future together.

I was offered a scholarship to attend W&L after I graduated from Floyd County High School in 1965. It has a well-recognized journalism school. But my mentor in becoming a newspaperman advised me to avoid getting a degree in journalism and recommended studying English composition and political science, so I accepted a scholarship offer from the University of Virginia, which did not have a j-school but did have a strong political science curriculum.

Like it or not, Lee is a major part of the history of a time when racism, cloaked in arguments over “states’ rights.” We cannot erase his existence from our history books and educations but we also should not glorify him or the cause that Southerners embraced when they supported and fought in a treasonous war against this nation.

As readers know, racism is a hot-button issue for me. I lived among racists in Prince Edward County as an elementary school student who was forced to attend an all-white private school after the racist county board of supervisors and school board shut down the public schools to defy an order to integrate.

I photographed and sold my first news photo, a shot of a Ku Klux Klan meeting in Prince Edward County, at age 11. Doing so sparked a desire to become a newspaperman and I later covered Klan meetings in Franklin and Patrick counties for The Roanoke Times, my first daily newspaper job, and events driven by racism in stories and photos throughout my 50+ years reporting the news.

Sadly, we still see racism among us today. A shirtless racist waving the Confederate flot while shouting racial insults and epithets in the midst of a crowd gathered to support the Black Lives Movement in front of the Floyd County Courthouse in June of last year is a glaring example.

So are efforts to limit voting by American citizens of differing skin tones and philosophies than those who declare “white supremacy” and claim that they are better than others.

Removing statues that glorify those who fought a treasonous war is a good first step, but they are negated by voters who send racists to misrepresent America’s values in Congress or in the White House.

Neither does removing the name “Lee” from a university or school. Hatred and bigotry may be removed as well. That remains lot harder goal to achieve.

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