Washington and Lee Keeps Name, Black Alumni React

Washington and Lee Keeps Name, Black Alumni React
portrait of Dean Golembeski
By Dean Golembeski

Published on June 8, 2021

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The name can stay, but real change is needed. This was many Black alumni's reaction to Washington and Lee University's decision to keep its name, which honors President George Washington and Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The decision came in response to calls from students, faculty, alumni, and others who advocated for the removal of Lee's name.

"I'm not surprised. I didn't think they were going to change," said Robert Ford, one of 15 Black undergraduates who graduated from W&L in 1970. It was then the largest group of Black students to ever enroll at W&L, which was an all-male university at the time.

"I'm not so much worried about the name as I am about the changes that need to be made to improve diversity and inclusion," Ford added.

“The name ‘Washington and Lee’ does not define us. We define it. While the name has been unchanged for more than 150 years, the institution has been utterly transformed over that span by integration, coeducation, and sustained innovation.”
Will Dudley, President of Washington and Lee University

Matthew Towns, another Black alum from the class of 1974, agrees. "Changing the name wouldn't have made the university any better," he said. "Making it more inclusive — moving away from its Confederacy background — is a lot more important than changing the name."

Last July, the university formed a committee to review its name in response to pressure from students, faculty, alumni, parents, and others who viewed the association with Lee as racist and divisive. Nearly a year later on June 4, W&L's board of trustees voted 22-6 to keep the institution's name.

"Reactions to these decisions within the W&L community will undoubtedly be divergent and strong. For some, they will be painful," the university president, Will Dudley, wrote in a message to students, faculty, staff, alumni, and parents announcing the decision.

"Questions of identity elicit powerful emotions. We have deep attachments to the school where we have chosen to study, teach, or work. Each of us wants what is best for our university but there are honest disagreements about how to pursue it," Dudley explained.

W&L Has Held Ties to Lee, Confederacy for Decades

Based in Lexington, Virginia, W&L was named Washington College back when Lee became its president four months after the Civil War ended. Lee served as president for five years, and upon his death in 1870, the college was renamed Washington and Lee University in his honor.

"The name never bothered me," said Thomas W. Penn, a 1974 Black alum whose son also attended the university. "Lee Chapel, though, was a bit spooky with all its Confederate stuff."

“My biggest disappointment while a student was that [W&L] didn’t tell us the truth. They need to teach the [university’s] real history, not propaganda.”
Matthew Towns, Washington and Lee University, Class of 1974

Lee is buried in a crypt beneath the chapel named for him. The Confederate general Stonewall Jackson, along with 144 other Confederate soldiers, are also buried nearby at the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery about a mile from campus.

"My four years there were fine. I didn't expect a bed of roses. I expected it to be hard and it was," said Towns. "My biggest disappointment while a student was that the university didn't tell us the truth. They need to teach the [university's] real history, not propaganda."

"You know exactly what you're getting into when you go to W&L," echoed Ford, noting that W&L held an event commemorating the 100th anniversary of Lee's death the same year he began his studies. "To the Lost Cause people, the town of Lexington and the W&L campus are special. It's their mecca."

Recruiting Black Students Remains Challenging

W&L enrolled its first Black undergraduate in 1966, but that student left after just one year. In 1968, the university enrolled two more Black students, and four years later they became the first Black students to receive undergraduate degrees from W&L. Both students are now deceased, making the handful of surviving members from the 1974 class the university's oldest living Black alumni.

"The university is bad at recruiting Black students. They need to do much better. They have been too slow to make changes," Ford said.

W&L enrolled four Black students in the fall of 1971 and three in the fall of 1972. According to a fall 2020 enrollment report, students of color made up about 18% of all undergraduates. This includes 62 Black students out of a total of 1,820 full-time undergraduates — just 3% of the student population.

According to a fall 2020 enrollment report, students of color made up about 18% of all undergraduates. Black students accounted for just 3% of the student population.

"We had a lot of momentum going back then. But it all changed. It stopped," said Towns. Still, despite the university's shortcomings, Towns remains hopeful and has contributed to the school every year since he graduated.

Other Black alumni feel similarly optimistic that W&L will "expand [its] diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives," as announced by Dudley.

"I believe they are really putting in an effort," Penn said, noting that the high-achieving Black students W&L is targeting have other options for college. "It's a great school and a great education, but there are other schools that are doing a better job and where Black students are getting more."

Protests Prompt W&L to Make Changes

W&L's link to Lee has presented issues for years. In August 2013, the university formed a working group to examine its involvement with slavery (the school owned and sold slaves until 1852). In 2014, W&L removed Confederate flags from Lee Chapel in response to demands from Black students at the university's School of Law.

These calls for change ramped up following the violence at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, and after George Floyd's murder by a police officer in May 2020. Last summer, W&L faculty voted 188-51 to drop Lee's name. But only the board of trustees has the authority to make that happen.

In March, roughly 400 students walked out of class to protest the school's affiliation with Lee. A month later, 200 students and faculty gathered on campus to demand the removal of Lee's name. Alumni, students, and faculty also formed a group, Not Unmindful, that strongly supports a school name change.

At the same time, many opposed changing the university's name, including a group of "concerned parents," who issued an open letter to the school's board of trustees, and a group of alumni known as The Generals Redoubt.

W&L Aims to Continue Diversity and Inclusion Efforts

In response to the recent decision to keep the name "Washington and Lee," Not Unmindful said, "The Board of Trustees has decided wrongly in our opinion. We feel that this is just kicking the can down the road."

But even without a new name, W&L continues to strive for diversity and inclusion. So far the school has increased efforts to recruit students of color, created an Office of Inclusion and Engagement, and established a new position for an associate provost for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The institution has also renamed buildings, replaced portraits of Lee and Washington, added new courses, established a faculty anti-racism committee, and hired more faculty of color.

"We have to deal with our present and our future — that's the most important thing," said Towns. "If we changed the name, 50 years from now people wouldn't know the history. To improve and go forward, you need to know your history."

Feature Image: The Washington Post / Contributor / Getty Images

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