The Lee Chapel: Is There Room For Compromise?

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

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.

26 thoughts on “The Lee Chapel: Is There Room For Compromise?

  1. Matt McKeon August 4, 2014 / 3:58 am

    The League of the South has issued threats. The SCV is pursuing a course of noisy, but ultimately minor disruption. Neither has any connection with W and L. Why have a ‘dialogue’ with them? Why ‘compromise’ with them at all? They are not interested in either. From what little I’ve read about this any dialogue would quickly turn into a platform for grandstanding and a tool for publicity and fundraising. Ignore them. Something bright and shiny will come along in a couple of months and W and L will know them no more.

  2. Julie August 4, 2014 / 6:59 am

    Restore the flags, they are symbols of Robert Edward Lee’s fight to save his beloved Virginia. They represent history, stop trying to change it. The destruction of everything with historical value
    makes all of us United States citizens the same. Isn’t the point of diversity, to realize that we are all different and come from different backgrounds, in doing so we learn tolerance?

  3. John Stoudt August 4, 2014 / 7:06 am

    Has the Committee responded to President Ruscio’s statement?

  4. Michael Rodgers August 4, 2014 / 7:19 am

    Yes, the W&L president corrected the error made in 1930 and restored the space to its original intent.

  5. Sandi Saundersdi August 4, 2014 / 7:26 am

    I think the decision WAS a compromise. The flags have not been removed from campus, nor are they to be locked away from view. They are merely moved FGS! The hysteria and insult proves some people are just radical for the sake of being radical.

  6. Billy Bearden August 4, 2014 / 7:55 am

    The UDC has always maintained a strong relationship with WLU and the Lee Chapel. Not only does the UDC offer scholarship programs for students, but they have done many positive things for/with the Chapel. One major item was the internment of Traveller a few feet from RE Lee.

    What Ruscio , the media, and these blogs refuses to acknowledge is what brought about the flag display in the 1st place.

    An individual who had witnessed 1st hand the display of battleflags posted around the sarcophagus of Napoleon, thought such a display would be a fitting tribute to Lee inside the Recumbent Lee alcove.

    In 1930, an agreement was entered into between the UDC, the Confederate Memorial Literary Society (later MoC) and WLU to create the “Memorial to General Robert E Lee” with the display of 12 recently returned war era Confederate flags of units that served directly under Lee.

    A bit later, 1 of the 12 was recognized as a CBF belonging to a Kentucky Regt, and it was returned to Kentucky under some arrangement. The 11 remained.

    Beginning in 1995, it was finally declared as obvious that the remaining war era flags were in such bad shape that restoration and protections were needed asap.

    In 1997, an agreement was signed by then WLU President John Elrod and MoC director Robin Reed, that the 11 war era flags would go to the MoC for restoration and protection.

    It was thus that 12 reproduction flags were installed in the location of the original war era CBFs, as placeholders to maintain the integrity of the “Memorial to General Robert E Lee” until the war era flags were returned.

    The 1997 agreement calls for the return of the restored flags to the “Lee Chapel” without any mention of the term “museum”

    The 1997 agreement also called for between 2, possibly 3 restored flags to be displayed.

    The demands of, and cave to, the committee have violated the terms of all agreements, destroyed an 84 year old memorial. Talk is also that the actions of the committee and Ruscio is a most severe violation of Lee’s “Honor Code” system

    As to your point about visibility of the flags.
    I am reminded of Ruscio’s words stating that WLU doesn’t ‘recognize Lee-Jackson Day’ Well, he is partially disingenuous because WLU does recognize January 19th annually as “Founder’s Day”

    There are at least 2 videos online of speeches made to attendees in the Lee Chapel for Founder’s Day. As one notes, the alcove is shut, the lights are off, the gates are closed, and the 4 flags (US, Va State, WLU, and Society of Cincinnati) are in front of the gate.

    Professional activist and community organizer Brandon Hicks stated he and others do not go into the Lee Chapel.

    Sources closer to the campus have suggested that of the original committee members, only Hicks and 1 other remain at WLU – the balance have either quit from guilt of conscience or graduated, Which is why it was Brandon Hicks in the media giving interviews – he is basically the last person standing. All the spin about slavery this, and offensive flags that was distraction from simply an activist gaining personal street cred. Hicks played Ruscio like a fiddle.

    WLU is refusing many requests to provide a copy of the new ‘agreement’ that should have been entered into to override the 1997 version. WLU has refused dialogue with the UDC. Refused dialogue with the SCV. Refused to answer questions of city leaders and media outside of the canned replies of the Ruscio statement. WLU got caught lying about the situation regarding the 15 year old child and 3 other individuals. WLU has refused requests to show the claimed ‘threats’ that resulted in their closing the Chapel.

    • Brooks D. Simpson August 4, 2014 / 10:03 am

      Understood. Two points, Billy: it’s still not clear that WLU was lying about the 15 year old, although I would say that its officers should be willing to inform their headquarters whether one of the people they stopped was the 15 year old (it doesn’t help that a fake commenter appeared on Kevin Levin’s blog posing as a WLU student, lending some credence to the notion of a set-up). Moreover, WLU did not specify the threats as coming from the SCV or people identified as SCV members. I think SCV people jumped to a conclusion not warranted by what was in evidence in the public record. That said, yes, I think WLU might want to rethink its approach to several aspects of this situation. I know that the SCV has reached out to the president. I also know that it’s hard for anyone to see that someone’s reaching out to someone when they are also calling them bigots. It’s time for everyone to take a deep breath … although I believe we know where the League of the South stands on this issue. It might behoove the SCV to distance itself from that declaration … and it’s time for your friends the Virginia Flaggers to do the same (unless they want to display some unusual candor by expressing their agreement with the League of the South).

    • Goad Gatsby August 4, 2014 / 10:09 am

      “Professional activist” where have I heard that term before?

    • Jimmy Dick August 4, 2014 / 10:41 am

      Well, if you don’t like it you can whine and cry about it. Oh that’s right, you are already doing that. It is funny how Lee didn’t want the flags there when he was alive. It was only after he died that some people wanted them there so they could turn him into St. Bobbie of the CSA, a role he himself rejected. So if you want a FIRST PLACE discussion, let’s go with what Lee himself wanted.

    • Sandi Saunders August 4, 2014 / 10:46 am

      Billy Bearden, are you claiming you are not a “Professional activist and community organizer”?

      • Billy Bearden August 4, 2014 / 2:13 pm

        Ms Saunders,
        What is a ‘professional’ ? Someone who does a thing and gets paid for it? Not me. Someone who does a thing based out of a central location or building ? Not me. I am just a volunteer and help where I can, which isn’t very often.

        However, someone who gets $$ and like support from state institutions, who is involved in a national effort, trained by various national groups, and promotes a national agenda. Yes, I would consider that a professional.

        It is also very telling that Mr Hicks is receiving outside non-family/self/government support while he is enrolled at WLU, which also dictates a professional. I could only dream of leading a movement with such support. The situation in which he began was well cultivated and groomed him to be a professional activist and community organizer. Mr Hicks didn’t miss a beat when he moved on to WLU, and maintained his support base in doing so.

        • Brooks D. Simpson August 4, 2014 / 3:07 pm

          As HK Edgerton asks for pay, I guess he’s a professional agitator, by your definition. Does Susan Hathaway receive any sort of compensation for what she does? And how about Tripp’s defense fund? We know Connie uses her agitation to sell books (or at least to try to sell them).

        • Sandi Saunders August 4, 2014 / 3:20 pm

          In other words Mr. Bearden, nothing you offered proves that anyone on “the Committee” did any thing to get paid for it either and in fact some ended up leaving the school, but you who is all over the internet, professing your supposed knowledge, inciting people and action, claim that only getting paid to do something and being based somewhere on the planet can be considered as a “Professional activist and community organizer”? I can see that you don’t like it but you are merely the other side of the coin you are condemning and you are doing precisely what you accuse them of as well.

        • Goad Gatsby August 4, 2014 / 3:42 pm

          Billy Bearden’s links make no mention of Brandon Hicks or any professional activism. The reason why I brought up how I heard the term “professional activist” before was that was the same term that the Virginia Flaggers have falsely used against me. It is something the Virginia Flaggers use in an attempt to smear an individual with no evidence as Billy Bearden just demonstrated. Even in reality, the Virginia Flaggers are soliciting donations for their activism and have no accounting or transparency on were the money is going.

          • Billy Bearden August 5, 2014 / 4:12 am

            Mr Goad
            Just because the above links do not mention Brandon Hicks, it is fact that Mr Hicks was the leader of the NCCU LGBT ‘COLORS’ group. He led te fight based out of the NCCU LGBT base of operations with strong financial backing and other professionals providing in kind support – training, material, literature, signs, etc… Now a student at WLU, he is continuing to receive funding from national organizations which promote a certain agenda.

            I am not going to play my hand and lay all my cards on the table here. What I know comes from numerous sources which are not going to be divulged.

            Also, all monies to Flaggers go directly to flag projects. Just because you don’t have access to the ledgers makes you sling mud and be accusatory.

          • Goad Gatsby August 5, 2014 / 12:25 pm

            I have seen no evidence that anyone from the Committee is receiving outside aid. Connie Chastain’s speculations do not count as evidence. However, when I said that the Virginia Flaggers have no transparency, that means no one but the Virginia Flaggers know the annual income, annual expenses, and breakdown of those expenses. Why should someone support the Virginia Flaggers if their donations are going to something like a member’s legal fund? I am not saying that is what the Virginia Flaggers are doing, but the Virginia Flaggers as an organization are doing nothing to prove otherwise.

        • Andrew Raker August 4, 2014 / 6:18 pm

          When I was in divinity school, I wrote a letter to the editor commending Vanderbilt University’s decision to remove the “Confederate” from the name of Memorial Hall, pointing out that it didn’t fit in with the creation of the university as as a way of reconciling the country after the war. Since I got funding from my denomination, and was technically a “professional student”, I guess that makes me a professional activist according to Billy Bearden. I’ve never been so proud of my work!

          I do think the Vanderbilt example is interesting in the case of WLU, although I also think the UDC/SCV don’t have the same legal rights to Lee Chapel that the UDC had to Memorial Hall’s name. Taking this into consideration, I’m not sure that WLU needs to reach out to these other groups.

        • Pat Young August 5, 2014 / 3:35 pm

          Just the usual anti-gay claptrap.

          Mr. Bearden, have you no shame?

  7. John Heiser August 4, 2014 / 8:42 am

    I always perceived the flags as decorations of the crypt rather than symbolic of the struggle to save the Confederacy. Certainly, Lee led the men who carried those flags (the originals, not the 1990’s reproductions), but the greatness of Lee is displayed by the recumbent sculpture of the general at rest on the university that he not only superintended but preserved. The original flags to be shown in the museum have so much more context and meaning than what was removed, and not an attempt to change history but better understand it. Cooler heads could probably reach some sort of understanding with W&L, Brooks, but it certainly does not seem to be the case with any of these heritage groups whose response is generally “my way or the highway”.

  8. Bob Huddleston August 4, 2014 / 11:02 am

    Some years ago we visited the MoC and down in the basement, in a room where they could control the temperature and humidity — both concerns in a Richmond summer! — the museum had a display of the “Gettysburg” flags. They were on the wall, behind glass, and it was fascinating to walk up to each (a light came on as you approached a flag) and realize that *these* were the real thing, Very moving — and I say that as a confirmed Yankee.

    Personally the WLU crypt should be as the general and his family wanted it, sans flags, real or repros. then those who really care can go to the museum had see a real flag. And perhaps be as moved as we were.

    • Sandi Saunders August 4, 2014 / 11:17 am

      It is hard not to be moved by the actual accouterments of such a vicious and destructive war. How people can view them and come out saying, “let’s do it again” instead of “never again” always makes me sad.

  9. Brad Griffin August 4, 2014 / 4:00 pm

    Michael Hill’s statement was merely a reflection of the guffaw in the League at the native statement made by Ben Jones about “that courageous Southerner Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr” and particularly about how Organized Blackness needs to “get over their condescending sanctimony and to enter into the real world of brotherhood and fellowship.”

    Fat chance of that ever happening!

    Aside from blowing up Stone Mountain like the Taliban, I am not sure what our enemies could do at this point – having already desecrated the graves of Forrest and Lee – to illustrate that “anti-racism” and “civil rights” cannot coexist with Southern heritage. In the League. we understand the reality of racial and ethnic conflict, and that this is a zero sum game in which one side is going to be the winner and the other side is going to be the loser.

    The NAACP doesn’t seek “brotherhood” with us, nor should we with them. I noticed a new article in the Washington Post about how The Virginia Flaggers are their enemies. It shows how Organized Blackness is driven by racial and cultural grievances against White Southerners. That’s not our doing. That’s just the reality of the situation.

    • Brooks D. Simpson August 4, 2014 / 4:18 pm

      I appreciate that you disagree with Ben Jones’s approach. I’ve always said it’s a mistake to lump different groups under the same label. You must agree, given your decision to adopt a distinct flag and symbol.

  10. Rob Baker August 4, 2014 / 4:13 pm

    If there is to be any more compromise (because in reality the president’s decision is a form of compromise) it needs to come from the student body. It is their University after all.

  11. Matt McKwon August 4, 2014 / 7:03 pm

    I never wanted to blow up Stone Mountain. It’s such a tiny, pathetic Rushmore wannabe that practically shouts ‘thank God we lost.’ I want to fill it in with spackle.

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