Last week, I received notice from a friend regarding an effort by students at Washington & Lee University to, among other things, ban Confederate flags from Lee Chapel which, of course, sets on the campus of W & L. Lee Chapel is also the final resting place of General Lee and houses a state of the art museum containing many Lee (as well as Washington) related artifacts. No student of Virginia history, nor the War Between the States, should miss an opportunity to visit. It has been called the Shrine of the South - and for good reason.
This morning, another friend alerted me to a post by Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory on this same topic. Readers should take the time to read Kevin's post here. Some of the comments are quite enlightening and display an astonishing degree of narrow-mindedness, as well as ignorance. Absolutely amazing.
Though Kevin and I rarely agree on anything, I think his take on this latest PC controversy is correct. However, I'm not quite sure why Kevin (and others) seem to be a bit surprised or think this effort goes too far. After all, this is simply the natural progression of political correctness and Confederate history bashing - which often takes place on Kevin's blog. I recall having a conversation with John Heatwole back in the '90's over the banning of the Confederate flag, even in a historical context, from all public properties. (While I understand that perspective, it seems to always go to the extreme; as in the City of Lexington debacle.) Anyway, I told John that the natural trajectory of such efforts would be to rename Washington and Lee University.
He thought I was being silly. I wonder what he would think now, God rest his soul.
In regards to the Lee Chapel "controversy", it's important to point out that there is hardly a university or college in America dating to the antebellum period that doesn't have some connection to slavery. (I recently posted some observations about Brown University.) A recent book, Ebony & Ivy, explores this connection in some detail. In an article about the book, and efforts by some colleges to address the controversey, the writer notes the following about Harvard University:
. . . universities may not be eager to embrace the research wholeheartedly. At Harvard, a student-generated report on the university’s connections with slavery released in 2011 received personal support and financing from Harvard’s president, Drew Gilpin Faust, but no institutional response, according to Sven Beckert, the professor who led the project.
While acknowledging and discussing the history - including slavery - of any institution is certainly appropriate, the call for apologies and penance is absurd in my opinion; as is the call for removing flags displayed in a historical context, or the removal of statues, or historical plaques and the renaming of buildings, etc. etc. If not, then the majority of monuments in Washington D. C. would have to be demolished. We would also have to rename a very large number of towns and communities.“The university itself has not reacted in any way, shape or form,” Mr. Beckert said. “There has been no effort to make this into a broader discussion.”
Beyond that, making someone (or some entity) apologize for something they had absolutely no control over or responsibility for is ridiculous. It's just political correctness to the absurd and extreme. Moreover, it is also necessary to point out that Lee's connection to the school, as well as Lexington, is inseparable. The same could be said of Washington. It is doubtful the school would have prospered - or even survived - without the efforts of these two sons of Virginia. The ongoing efforts to trash their memory on the altar of political correctness is a very sad thing to observe. It is more than proper for the school to honor these men, while acknowledging they were products of their time and, like all of us, had their moral blind spots. (Without Lee, Jackson and Washington, Lexington would be little more than another small town along the Valley Pike. Many elites in Lexington hate that fact, but it's the truth. It could be said that Lee and Jackson are the only reason many of them are even there. How ironic.)
But why stop at the flags? They're just a piece of cloth. The real culprit is buried in the family crypt downstairs. Why not demand he be dug up and moved? What about the Recumbent Lee lying there in his uniform? Certainly that is even worse and more offensive symbolism than the flag. Should they cover it? Sell it? Put it in storage?
Also, I found this *comment at Kevin's post by a former Lee Chapel docent somewhat curious:
Because of the broad appeal of Burns’s film, the visitation at the Chapel at that time was much greater than neo-Confederate apologists.Hmmm . . . I must ask, how does one know (with any degree of certainty) whether someone walking into Lee Chapel is a "neo-Confederate apologist"? I've never been asked upon entering and don't know anyone who has been asked, "Are you now, or have you ever been . . .?" And would that label include frequent Lee Chapel speaker, James I. Robertson, Jr. who ostensibly is perceived as (according to Kevin Levin), aligning "himself too closely with neo-Confederate types?" Would that include Robert Krick, who has criticized "anti-Confederate historians" and who has also spoken at Lee Chapel? I could go on, but I think readers will get the point.
In any event, given the current emphasis in historiography among academics and the constant Confederate-heritage bashing on blogs and in print, this latest effort really shouldn't come as a surprise. It is simply a natural progression and the fruits of political correctness. I do not doubt for one moment that we will see more of this type of thing. And we know full-well where much of the responsibility for that lies.
*The rest of that person's comments were, overall, reasonable. I just found this particular one curious and a bit revealing.
As an aside, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (neo-Confederate apologists?) once saved Lee Chapel from being razed in the 1920's. The idea to raze the chapel was the idea of the president of W & L. I'll post a part 2 to this taking some comments from a presentation I gave on Lee Chapel at Liberty University a few years ago.