The Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University.

Washington and Lee University has removed four Confederate battle flags which were on display behind an elegant statue of General Robert E. Lee in the Lee Chapel, on the university’s campus in Lexington, Virginia. The university administration made this decision after a group of black students at the law school made a number of demands. In an interview with NPR’s Molly Block, Washington and Lee President, Kenneth Ruscio, explained the rational for the changes to the chapel.

 

The four flags, displayed behind the statue, “The Recumbent Lee,” are not even originals, according to President Ruscio. There are original, battle-carried flags in the university’s museum, an appropriate location for them.

The Beauregard Flag, also known as the Confederate Battle Flag, is a hot-button symbol for African-Americans in the United States. I think Lee would be OK with this decision on the part of the school where he worked and taught after the war. Lee was an American. He was very proud of his country and its Army, in which he served with honor. Throughout his life, he always stated that his decision to resign his commission in the U.S. Army was because he wanted to serve his beloved Virginia. His loyalty was to the state, not to the Confederacy. To remove symbols of that Confederacy are appropriate.

Lee’s office, located on the ground floor of the chapel.

Another of the demands made by black students at the university is that the institution issue an apology for the fact that the university (at the time, it was known simply as Washington University) owned slaves. The students also demand that apologies be issued because Lee personally was a slave owner. President Ruscio did not go that far in this interview, but his comments were poignant:

You know, the question of Robert E. Lee is that he devoted five years of his life to the institution as president and made some very, very significant contributions during his time here. And as I had said in other contexts, Robert E. Lee was absolutely an imperfect individual living in imperfect times. And to understand the complexity, understanding the totality of a record of an individual, is clearly the first step that we have to take as a community. And I think that’s where I would head first.

Lee knew that he was a lightning rod, so he kept to himself and the university until his death. I think that, had he lived longer, he would have done more publicly to atone for his part in the rebellion, secession, and war. That’s not how it turned out, though.