By Joe Darby
I learned this week that an academic institution of higher learning has actually decided to retain the name of the man who literally saved the college from financial ruin after the Civil War. But it is severing all other connections that could link the institution to Gen. Robert E. Lee.
I’m talking about Washington and Lee University, which sits on a small, lovely campus in the very pleasant little town of Lexington, Va. Lexington itself lies smack in the middle of the beautiful Shenandoah Valley, one of my very favorite places on earth.
The institution began as Liberty College back in the 18th century and George Washington saved it from financial ruin in 1796 with a substantial donation and it was later named for our first president. By the time the Civil War was over in a devastated Virginia, the college was on the ropes again. Union Gen . Philip Sheridan had led his troops in a scorched earth policy through the Shenandoah of such severity that Sheridan himself said a Crow flying over the valley would have to bring his own food if he wanted to eat.
Facing such conditions, the college administrators prevailed upon Gen. Lee in 1865 to become its president. The prestige, respect and honor that Virginians had for him ensured the college’s survival. Young men began flocking to attend the school, endowments increased and it was saved.
Lee did a magnificent job as president. He greatly improved the institution and its curriculum and faculty. And can you imagine how a young student would feel if he was accused of an infraction of the rules and had to go explain himself before Lee? I’m sure such a prospect kept many of the lads on the straight and narrow.
Lee’s tenure lasted only five years. He suffered from angina and died in 1870 and his name was added to that of Washington’s, with the school becoming Washington and Lee College, now university. I have visited the lovely place. The campus is a hilly one and it is said that Lee suffered chest pains in walking from academic buildings to his residence, on a hilltop. It’s a fairly strenuous walk, I can tell you.
So, anyway, there has been much clamor in recent years for W&L to drop Lee’s name, for all the reasons with which we are now so familiar. But the board of trustees has voted 22-6 to retain Lee’s name. Some say the board gave in to massive pressure from rich alumni who threatened to cut off endowments if the general’s name were deleted. That may be. If so, I say pressure can sometimes be a good thing.
However, Lee’s memory won’t be regarded as it has been for the last 150 years on the campus. His image will be removed from diplomas, the beautiful Lee Chapel, which contains a magnificent marble image of the general, will be renamed University Chapel and access to the tomb and crypt will be cut off.
I want to re-emphasize a point. If it had not been for Lee, this institution would not exist now. All of its current students and those alumni who wanted a name change would have attended college somewhere else. That should count for something, I would think.
But those who wanted the change focused only, of course, on Lee’s ownership of slaves and his leadership of Confederate troops in the war. He saved the college through his actions as president and his prestige. He wasn’t a slave owner or military commander during his tenure there.
I freely admit human slavery is just about the worst idea that our species ever came up with. It goes back thousands of years and it was a heck of a struggle to suppress it worldwide, although there are still pockets of it in some benighted places today. But I don’t believe that it’s really fair the way we regard a person from the past today. Someone said the past was like another planet, completely different from today. Taken to a logical extreme, perhaps we should take down all the statues of medieval kings and queens in Europe and destroy all the statues of leaders from classical Greece and Rome. They indulged in the oppression of peasants and slaves, you know.
I may expand on this theme in a future column. Suffice to say now that I can only hope that folks may begin to tire of this “cancel culture” madness and the desire to rewrite history. It can’t go on forever, can it?
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