Washington and Lee University, the nation’s ninth oldest university, released a public apology on Tuesday for its past enslavement of Africans and will remove Confederate flags from its Lee Chapel, thanks to the efforts of Black student protesters.
It could be expected that a historic Virginia school had a past rooted in slavery, but students at the university didn’t expect that history to still be on display today.
Recently, a group of Black students protested against the Confederate banners hanging in the school’s chapel next to a memorial of Robert E. Lee, who served as the general of the Confederate Army. The students said the banners made them feel uncomfortable and unwelcome.
Currently, Black students only make up a little more than 3 percent of the school’s enrollment of 2,277.
Initially, school officials stood behind their decision to keep the battle flags on display because they insisted it was merely a nod to history, not a message of racism or support for slavery.
That’s when a group of Black law students, known as “the committee,” took action and delivered a list of demands to the Board of Trustees.
Among the demands was a request for a formal apology of the school’s ties to slavery and the removal of the Confederate flags in the chapel.
In what some have considered a surprising move, the university’s president has complied.
President Kenneth P. Ruscio acknowledged that the entire situation was “legitimately complicated” and even “uncomfortable” to handle.
“We acknowledge that this was a regrettable chapter in our history, and we must confront and try to understand this chapter,” Ruscio wrote in the public statement. “Acknowledging that historical record – and acknowledging the contributions of those individuals – will require coming to terms with a part of our past that we wish had been different, but that we cannot ignore.”
The protest and letter of demands has also sparked much-needed discussions on the school’s campus about issues of race and diversity.
While the Black students said they felt supported by some white students on campus, they had also received hate mail from anonymous senders who described themselves as “rebels.”
Another group has also stepped forward to show their disapproval of the decision to remove the Confederate flags.
Members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans believe removing the flags was disrespectful to the school’s history.
“It’s a disgrace for them to besmirch Lee’s military honor,” said Brandon Dorsey, a commander of a unit of the Sons of Confederate Veterans based in Lexington. “As far as I’m concerned, they should go ahead and remove his name from the school. I don’t think they’re worthy of his name.”
He also went on to say that the university should expect a “long, nasty fight” to ensue.
While the flags will be removed from the school’s chapel, they won’t be gone for good. The school has agreed to display restored original Confederate flags in the school’s Lee Chapel Museum as a part of an agreement made with Richmond’s American Civil War Museum.