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.”
I am a parent of a current W&L student, a sibling of an alumnus, a one-time rejected applicant and a friend to a handful of other alumni. Although I was educated elsewhere I have always held W&L in high regard. I have listened to accounts of campus life from friends and family but my experience is obviously limited. I have also read the experiences shared through your Instagram account. I wrote to provide a slightly different perspective.
I have little doubt of any of the information shared by those whose stories have been published. The fact that racism, antisemitism, misogyny and other such behaviors flourish in Lexington comes as no real surprise.
I am horrified that students have suffered through their time at W&L while others have found it idyllic.
I fully support the attention directed at addressing these failings. The name change and removal of other campus dedications honoring those whose efforts championed morally repugnant causes are obvious steps that would show recognition of the need for substantive change. I understand the resistance from an “old guard” who fear that such things would erase a part of their history. But I have another view.
The challenge facing W&L is yet another opportunity to put a burden on the broad shoulders of its unique nature and an opportunity to elevate itself. At the core of W&L is the honor system which is intended as “… an all-encompassing system of trust. Since a central implication is that students will not lie, cheat, or steal, members of the W&L community take one another’s words and actions at face value, inside the classroom and out…”
My outsider view sees racism, antisemitism, misogyny and any other such abomination as a violation of that code. To actively perpetrate or condone such behavior is to misrepresent one’s character, to unfairly promote disparate treatment of others and to deprive another of their expectation of fair treatment and equal rights – lying, cheating and stealing.
For the alumni, students, faculty and administration of W&L, it is time to ask whether the honor code is a sham. You cannot simultaneously boast of the honor code and turn a blind eye on the violations raised here. I think it is far from a sham. It is the backbone of all that is good at W&L. It is THE thing worth preserving and building upon. It is the most important tradition and provides the guidance needed to navigate the rough seas of accountability and long overdue change.