WLU ’20 — Lee

Recently, I got the chance to show a friend of mine around W&L and Lex. This place has become my home, and I was excited to show her around. 

I’ve had the privilege of never quite comprehending just how prevalent Lee, the Confederacy, and racism are in this community. I‘ve learned about this town and this school gradually, and it’s so easy to become desensitized given how the history is portrayed. But to my friend, it sounded like this:

This is where Robert E. Lee is buried. That’s the professor who told the class he has a “colonizer fetish.” That was around the time the KKK came to campus. Turn right onto Lee Highway. That’s George and Bob. Yeah, it’s a cute nickname we have for him. Yeah, he did kill Americans.

It’s across from Lee Chapel. Some KKK members make “pilgrimages” here. I took him to Stonewall Jackson hospital. There were 16 Black students in my year. It said “KK-Keep the name the same.” That’s where the flaggers will stand. The KKK targeted that restaurant. This is my diploma. That’s a Confederate general. You pass by Stonewall Jackson cemetery. At the front is a portrait of him in his Confederate uniform. Yeah, he didn’t want that. They told us Lee created the Honor System. Turns out he didn’t. They hung a Confederate flag there when Trump was elected. The War of Northern Aggression. It was Lee-Jackson Day.

And those are just the things that I hear. I am a straight, white student. I don’t hear the racist slurs when I walk into a party. No one questions to my face how I got here. 

My visiting friend is from South Carolina. She was appalled. She was shocked that we could say Washington and Lee’s names in the same breath—someone who helped create our country, and someone who helped tear it apart. 

She is an International Relations major, and kept asking if the students pushing to keep the name the same know that Lee was a traitor. That his army killed far, far more Americans than 9/11 did. That no one outside of Lexington, including in the South, has any clue what you mean when you say “Lee the Educator.”

WLU ’21 — Change

Before coming to W&L, I was unaware of some of the problematic parts of our campus and community. I never understood how something like having “Lee” as part of our name could negatively impact any other student’s experience because I was raised in a “War of Northern Aggression” household and community. Being that I was white and went to a small predominantly white school, I never questioned the picture that had been painted of the Confederate general. I bought into the same narrative that W&L pushed, showcasing him primarily as an educator and savior of our university. 

I applied to the school because it checked off all of my boxes, especially my need for financial aid. I come from a low income background and was even on scholarship to my private high school so I needed to be able to afford to attend a higher institution.

Luckily, W&L was able to completely meet my needs, and I am incredibly grateful for this, especially since this is not the case for every student. Even through my first year, I was pretty unaware of some of the negative aspects of our campus. That is until I was starting to really pay attention. 

My family members came to parents’ weekend my sophomore year, and some of them were completely appalled by what they saw. They didn’t understand the necessary push for adding diversity to our campus, and I remember one of them saying how they don’t get why W&L will just let anyone in these days. I was completely taken aback because I knew exactly who they were referring to: the POC and LGBT+ students. At the time, I didn’t say anything for fear that I would come across as disrespectful, and I regret that decision because I know that they were also referring to some of my friends and peers.

After that, I started noticing more comments that peers were making: fraternity members using racist slurs, friends making homophobic comments, sorority sisters bashing lower income families. I started to question if I made the right decision of attending W&L even though I was never directly attacked. 

As I was closeted at the time, I felt like I would never be able to really be myself on campus if this was how my peers behaved. In a family group chat recently, they were complaining about the school’s recent push to add diversity, and an incredibly wealthy family member told me to “check my privilege” since she didn’t believe I could have been accepted without them wanting to fill an economic diversity spot. I began wondering if I had peers who thought that about me as well, and I cannot even imagine what it is like to be a student of color or an open member of the LGBTQ+ community if this is what my own family thinks of me.

Our campus has aspects of elitism, misogyny, and racism built within its walls, and as a white student that has come out to only a few friends, I will never fully understand or experience the negative parts of our community. 

Having “Lee” in our name can only further perpetuate these behaviors among students, faculty, alums, and family members. It makes our campus feel unwelcoming to marginalized groups since the university has catered to these mindsets to maintain funding and prestige among elitist and close-minded members of our community. 

It is a small stepping stone, but taking Lee out of the name pushes our university in the right direction for change.

WLU ’21 — The Cost

Upon my initial arrival at W&L, I tried my best to ignore the obvious. When my parents and I first arrived to Lexington for move-in day, they did the exact opposite. They genuinely were confused at why every highway, road, and statue on campus and in Lexington honored the confederacy. To them, W&L mirrored a parallel universe in which the south won the Civil War. Had you known nothing about U.S. History, just based off the statues, you would’ve thought that Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were American heroes who fought bravely too free/uphold the nation.

As a black man, these were obvious red flags and I tried my best to ignore them reminded myself that I’d be here for four years.

For the next three years, whether I was blatantly discriminated against or subject to microagressions I did my best to just move on through just talking about it with the ones close to me and always respond calmly to provocation.

I ask myself now: was that really the right thing to do? Should I have just spoken my truths instead? 

Sure, W&L has definitely served me well both socially and in my career pursuits. But at what cost? I’m thankful that my close friends and I have always been able to have the conversations that many students at W&L and Americans in general are just beginning to have. They provided a healthy outlet to talk through just about anything. 

However, every person of color shouldn’t just be expected to just “get over it” and have thick skin. That is simply unrealistic. It’s time to stop ignoring the obvious, clearly it doesn’t work.

WLU ’01 — Defining Moment

I gained an invaluable education at W&L and will always appreciate the good people (faculty, staff, students) I encountered–some are close friends to this day. But I also recognize that many people assumed (and voiced) I was accepted to WLU because of affirmative action policies. I also had to face overtly racist actions, like the one year on the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, a group of students dressed up as confederate soldiers, marched through uptown and then performed a “traditional” dance in the dining hall during dinner. My friends of color sprinkled throughout the room and I just looked around at one another in disbelief. I was born and raised in Virginia, where civil war re-enactments are commonplace, but this display shocked even me. 

There was no actual context given, but it was clear that this group of students (unchecked by the university administrators) wanted to diminish the focus placed on the civil rights movement that honoring Dr. King represented and instead focus on the racist ideals that their costumes and dance gleefully represented as alive and well. 

This was a defining moment of my W&L experience. I spent a considerable amount of time during my remaining years at W&L studying abroad in other countries, returning only because I was required to in order to graduate. I will always be a proud alum, but W&L can do better.

WLU ’17 — Lee’s Birthday

When I first visited W&L, it happened to fall on Robert E Lee’s birthday. There were confederate flags waving throughout downtown Lex, and people dressed as confederate soldiers parading around campus. My tour guide quickly informed the group about Lee’s impact and how he made W&L what it is today. That was the first time I heard the Lee “myth.” I wish this would been a red flag for me, but I bought into this lie that permeates every aspect of the W&L experience.