Washington & Lee University Considers Dropping Lee From Name

Mar 26, 2021

Hundreds of students at Washington and Lee University in Lexington walked out of classes earlier this week. 

They wanted to show their support for dropping Lee from the college's name.

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.

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

"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 said to the crowd through a loudspeaker. 

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.  "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."

"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.

Otice Carder organized the walkout.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

"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," said walkout organizer Otice Carder.  "I was actually very, very surprised by how many people came. It was kind of breathtaking."

Carder 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.

"Many of the people in The Generals' Redoubt have provided financial support, significant financial support, for the university over the years," Neely Young noted in an interview.  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.  "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."

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

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.  "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."

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.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.