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Get Rid Of 'Lee'? Students, Alumni at W&L Wrangle Over Changes

Randi B. Hagi

Hundreds of students at Washington and Lee University in Lexington walked out of classes earlier this week to show their support for dropping ‘Lee’ from the college's name. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

[Students marching in the walkout]

On the grounds where Confederate General Robert E. Lee is buried, a new battle rages on. And this one is a culture war.

On Tuesday, about 400 students at Washington and Lee University marched through the campus, flowing out over a grassy hillside in front of Lee Chapel, where the general's bones lie. The students wore t-shirts, masks, and carried signs saying 'Change the Name' in a demonstration they hope will sway the Board of Trustees towards removing Lee from the college's name. Lee served as president of then-Washington College from 1865 to 1870.

Credit Randi B. Hagi
Enuma Anekwe addresses the walkout Tuesday.

ENUMA ANEKWE (to a crowd): By continuing to uphold and honor Robert E. Lee, you are showing us and the world who and what matters to you. And it is not Black people or people of color.

Enuma Anekwe is a junior studying cognitive and behavioral science with a minor in Africana studies. She's one of the Black students who make up just 3% of the student body.

ANEKWE: You are alienating us, you are leaving us unsafe, and you are ensuring that some of us leave here with a lifetime of trauma to unpack. But most of all, you are holding onto a history that denigrated, enslaved, and committed an entire genocide of a lot of our ancestors, all while trying to convince us that that's not what's important, and that we should be okay with it. That has got to be the most ruthless part of it all. [applause]

ANEKWE (speaking to reporter): Being in the South, that's something that is often a divider of people, like whether you are still remembering and supporting the Confederacy.

Anekwe said that faculty are generally supportive of the students who are calling for the name change. The board is currently considering it, but announced in January that it needs more time to make a decision.

Credit Randi B. Hagi
Otice Carder organized the walkout.

OTICE CARDER: I hope that this makes them realize that faculty, students, the community, alumni, they want a name change. What we want for them to do now is to call a meeting and to finish their deliberations.

Otice Carder organized the walkout.

CARDER: I was actually very, very surprised by how many people came. It was kind of breathtaking.

He said that alumni donated all the funds for them to print the shirts, masks, and signs. But a lot of alumni feel that Lee's name and legacy should remain integral to the college – and their funding is at stake.

Credit Randi B. Hagi
Neely Young is active with an alumni group that opposes the name change.

NEELY YOUNG: Many of the people in The Generals' Redoubt have provided financial support, significant financial support, for the university over the years.

Neely Young graduated from Washington and Lee in 1966, and he's part of an alumni group called The Generals' Redoubt that opposes changing the school's name.

YOUNG: Now, some of us have suspended our donations to the university until this name change issue is resolved … We attempt to live our lives in emulation of the characteristics of Robert E. Lee and George Washington. We look upon them with respect and honor. We don't have hero worship for them, we simply recognize the tremendous influence that they've had on our university and on generations of students and alums.

Young said that many alumni hold affection for Lee, in part, because his five years as college president saved the school from financial ruin and introduced a modern curriculum. And, he said, they're in touch with a lot of conservative students on campus who feel the same, but may not be as vocal as liberal students and faculty.

YOUNG: Our group favors greater diversity at Washington and Lee. All types of diversity. Ethnic diversity, socioeconomic diversity, but also ideological or political and cultural diversity.

Toni Locy, a professor of journalism at the college, said the trustees are feeling the economic pressure exerted by these alumni.

Credit Toni Locy
Toni Locy is a professor of journalism and mass communications at W&L.

TONI LOCY: It really is disturbing and disappointing that people who claim to love this university as much as they do – and they will tell you constantly that they love this place more than anyone – yet their criticism and their rhetoric is over the top. And they are putting an amazing amount of pressure on the trustees, and they're using their money, and that is, it's so crass, you know, in my opinion.

Locy published an editorial in The Nation last summer that countered the rose-colored narratives that present Lee as an honorable educator and an advocate for reconciliation after the Civil War.

LOCY: I received quite a few emails and some voicemails from some irate people. Alums and parents of graduates who lashed out. I mean, that piece sent those people into a rage. And some of them talk about Robert E. Lee as if they know him, and he's been dead 150 years. … There is no future if the university goes down the path that those folks want it to go down. Just think about it. Think about the publicity that is going to come down on this school if the trustees decide to stay the course and to keep things as they are.

Washington College recruited Lee to serve as president with the hopes that his reputation would attract more students and funding. Now, in 2021, it may be that his absence would do the same.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.