Commission Examines History of Washington & Lee University and Makes Recommendations

Last summer, Will Dudley, president of Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, formed the Commission on Institutional History and Community. The 12-member commission included representatives from the faculty, student body, alumni, and staff.

President Dudley charged the commission “to lead us in an examination of how our history — and the ways that we teach, discuss, and represent it —shapes our community.” He also directed the commission to examine “how we can best present our physical campus to take full advantage of its educational potential in a manner that is consistent with our core values.”

The commission has now issued its 119-page report.

First and foremost, the commission recommended that the name of the university not be changed despite the fact that George Washington was a slave owner and Robert E. Lee was a slave owner and led the Confederate Army during the Civil War. The report states that “the commission thought that, at this point, efforts are better spent on concrete recommendations about how best to teach and present the university’s history.”

The commission did recommend that the university immediately rename Robinson Hall on campus. In 1826, John Robinson left 73 slaves and his farm to the university. The college rented the slaves out to local land owners. A decade later many of the slaves were sold and taken to work the cotton fields in Mississippi. As late as 1857, the university still owned three slaves.

Robert E. Lee became president of what was then Washington College in 1865. He died in 1870 and was buried in what is now called Lee Chapel on campus. The trustees then added Lee’s name to the college.

The commission recommends that Lee Chapel be converted to a museum and not be used as an auditorium for campus events. They also recommend that Lee always be referred to as President Lee and not General Lee. Also, the commission believed that only portraits of Lee in civilian attire – and not military dress – be allowed on campus.

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