Nearly four weeks ago President Kenneth Ruscio of Washington and Lee University issued a statement that served as his response to the demands of a group of WLU law students known as The Committee. You can read that document here and listen to or read his reasoning here.
Since then we’ve seen a great deal of heat and precious little light about this matter. There’s been an uproar from various Confederate heritage groups, and in recent days we’ve seen that the League of the South has staked out a position that distinguishes itself from the Sons of Confederate Veterans, while the Virginia Flaggers have remained silent on whether they side with the League of the South or the SCV. Some will attribute that to cowardice, while others will point to the confusion and a muddle-headedness that has characterized the behavior of that group’s members for years (to say nothing of a general ignorance of history, period). Critics of these groups have not framed a common position, either. Indeed, people who took the trouble to read what Kevin Levin wrote about this matter prior to the president’s announcement (see here and here) can hardly say that he pushed for removal of the replica flags that once adorned the chapel’s interior around a monument to Lee. Nor did I say a word about the proposals, and in fact I never endorsed what The Committee advocated (if you say otherwise, prove it or look foolish). All I’ve said, in fact, is that Ruscio’s proposal was reasonable. I also predicted it would be contested.
Let’s review that proposal (since everything else President Ruscio said in his July 8 statement has been largely ignored, which is the only way someone can say he “caved in” to The Committee’s demands):
1. The question about the regimental battle flags in Lee Chapel requires us to clarify the purpose, meaning and history of the flags, as well as the purpose and meaning of the chapel and the museum below the chapel. In 1930, several original and historic battle flags – “colors” that had been captured or surrendered to the Union army – were placed near the statue of Lee. The University did not own them. They were the property of the Museum of the Confederacy, now part of the American Civil War Museum, which asked us to return them in the 1990s because the manner of display in the chapel was causing their deterioration. They were replaced with reproductions, which are not historic and are not genuine artifacts.
The purpose of historic flags in a university setting is to educate. They are not to be displayed for decoration, which would diminish their significance, or for glorification, or to make a statement about past conflicts. The reproductions are not genuinely historic; nor are they displayed with any information or background about what they are. The absence of such explanation allows those who either “oppose” or “support” them to assert their own subjective and frequently incorrect interpretations.
Consequently, we will remove these reproductions from their current location and will enter into an agreement with the American Civil War Museum, in Richmond, to receive on loan one or more of the original flags, now restored, for display on a rotating basis in the Lee Chapel Museum, the appropriate location for such a display. In this way, those who wish to view these artifacts may do so, and the stories behind them can be properly told. You may view a history of the flags in the chapel at http://go.wlu.edu/chapel-flags-history.
Thus the flag display was not put in place until 1930, so it’s not accurate to say that the flags have always been there. If anything, their introduction altered the original intention of the space, which I always thought was a place to reflect on Lee, who he was, and what he stood for, on the grounds of the college he did so much to preserve (and he spent more time there than as a Confederate general). One could say, in fact, that their introduction in 1930 was an act of political correctness that infringed upon the original intent of the space.
Nor do I understand the two-faced arguments offered by some people … namely, that the Confederate flags in question were barely visible to many who sat in the chapel itself. If that’s the case, then why are people so insistent on the display of flags they admit can’t been seen? That’s surely just as reasonable a query as asking why people might be upset by flags some say can’t be seen easily.
Much of the problem, I believe, is that Lee Chapel performs multiple functions for multiple communities. It is above where the bodies of Robert E. Lee and members of his family rest: as such, it’s a memorial as well as a crypt. There’s also a museum downstairs, including Lee’s office when he was president of the then-college. That reminds me of places such as Notre Dame, St. Paul’s, and Westminster Abbey. But it is also a place of importance for Washington and Lee University, and it is reasonable that when it serves those functions, the members of the Washington and Lee community ought to feel welcome there … all of them.
As a graduate of the University of Virginia, I can understand the complaint of some people who say that if one is disturbed by the legacy of Lee and slavery inherent at WLU, then one should not go there. I just don’t agree with it. Just because I went to Mr. Jefferson’s Academical Village didn’t mean I could not speak or write critically of Jefferson (as I did during those years) … indeed, to have been censored by a sense of place would have violated Jefferson’s own principles about freedom of thought and discussion, even if he did not always practice what he preached. Both at UVa and at Monticello people now offer far more complicated and nuanced views of Jefferson than was once the case. The same is true of slavery. It’s also true, in a somewhat different way, about the Confederacy. There’s Maury Hall, named after the “Pathfinder of the Seas,” passionate Confederate Matthew Fontaine Maury, and I recall a portrait of John Singleton Mosby hanging in a hallway on the fourth floor. As an undergraduate I processed the collections of James L. Kemper (read this guide, and you’ll see that my fingerprints are still there in the biographical sketch) and John W. Daniel. As Kevin knows, there’s a Confederate cemetery on the grounds of the university not far from my first year undergraduate dorm (although I know that Hancock Hall was not named for Winfield Scott Hancock).
Accepting that UVa had ties to slavery and the Confederacy was one thing: embracing those ties or remaining silent about them was another. I think I would have reacted had there been Confederate flags on display in the university. Moreover, I’m not African American, and so I don’t pretend to say how the appearance of those banners would have affected me had I been, although I saw enough during my time there to know that it was not always easy to be black in Charlottesville in the 1970s.
All of this is to say that simply calling people bigots or issuing threats isn’t going to get us very far. Michael Hill’s recent announcement suggests that even as members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans have pleaded innocent to charges (never actually made) that they were being violent, some people have not been so restrained. Nor do I care much for people arguing that they’ve been misrepresented as to what they believe even as they misrepresent what others believe. But there seems to me to be room for some constructive discussion about the chapel and the presence of any Confederate banners there that would take into account the fact that the chapel serves different functions at different times, and the presence or absence of those flags could reflect the use of the chapel at the point of time in question. I also sense that the chapel itself can be flexible on the display of the Valentine statue of the recumbent Lee (surely we’ve heard of curtains, right?).
I’m not entirely sure that’s the way to go, either, but I do think it’s time for thoughtful dialogue instead of namecalling and cooperation instead of confrontation.