If you walk around campus at Washington and Lee University, my alma mater, you’ll see everything you’d expect from an elite liberal arts college in rural America: idyllic red brick buildings juxtaposed against a perfectly manicured green lawn, a mostly white student body exchanging laughs as they happily mingle on school grounds, a mix of old and nascent intellectuals debating the merits of “cultural relativity” in an interventionalist world. That is, until you stumble into Lee Chapel, the eponymous lecture hall, once a burial site, that honors the great Southern general and former school president, to find its walls bearing those pale stains that signal the fresh absence of a long-hanging piece of wall art.
Though not literal, these stains represent the Confederate battle flags removed two years ago this week by the university after decades lining its most cherished building. Installed four score and six years ago (just one year off from the ultimate irony), the flags proudly flew until the university’s president, Kenneth Ruscio, ordered them to be taken down despite widespread resistance from alumni, students and other groups. This bold move preempted the wave of Confederate flag controversy that has since confronted hundreds of Southern institutions, many of which share Washington and Lee’s nominal affiliation with Robert E. Lee.
But whether or not the flags are waving, Washington and Lee remains unwavering in its commitment to its latter namesake.