Washington and Lee University — located in Lexington, Virginia — derives one half of its name from a man who led an army into war to try to begin a new nation. That man, George Washington, succeeded.
The school derives the other half of its name from a man who led an army into war to try to destroy that same nation. That man, Robert E. Lee, failed.
Now that same nation is finally reckoning with four centuries of racial injustice and 150 years of venerating those who sought to destroy that nation in order to save the worst of that racial injustice. As a result, one place that faces a genuine existential question is Washington and Lee — my alma mater.
The answer to that existential question is existentially simple: It is well past time to remove Lee from the school’s name.
Washington received his namesake honor after giving the school (then known then as Liberty Hall Academy) a $20,000 endowment in 1796, when it was struggling to survive.
Less than a century later — and just four months after he surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in 1865 in Appomattox, Virginia, to end the Civil War — Lee was made president of Washington College as a way to attract more students. The school’s trustees then changed the name to Washington and Lee University in 1870, shortly after Lee’s death.
But for the 150 years following Lee’s death, Washington and Lee University has largely encouraged its students to treat Lee like a folk hero instead of a traitor to his country. Children’s books about Lee are sold by an on-campus gift shop. The school’s sober-ride transport service is even named after Lee’s horse, Traveller, whose prominent grave is just outside the Lee Chapel on campus. And, until 2014, every school year began with an assembly inside that chapel, where new students were seated in the pews before a massive marble statue of a recumbent Lee, above which hung Confederate flags.
The assembly is still held in the chapel, but the flags were removed in 2014 when the school acquiesced to a student petition to remove them.
In that assembly each fall, Gen. Lee — not President Washington — is literally front and center. Until 2018 — when a university historical commission found it to be untrue — a story was told about the school’s famed student-governed Honor System and its relationship to the civility Lee required of the all-white, all-male student body of the 1860s.
This and other actions taken in recent years demonstrate that Washington and Lee is, at long last, aware of its Robert E. Lee problem. Student leadership is currently calling for the university to change the name, and 79 percent of the faculty recently voted in favor of removing Lee from the school’s name.
The school has, of course, adopted a strategic plan to address historical inequities and is devoting tens of millions of dollars to foster more diversity among the student body. It has also renamed several buildings, added Juneteenth as an official university holiday and committed itself to creating the George Floyd Endowment, a lecture series on the Black experience, new committees and more.
But it all rings hollow while Lee’s name remains attached to the school. While the university must also fully reckon with George Washington’s own relationship with slavery and his evolving views, Lee’s sins are far greater.
The decision to rename the university, though, ultimately lies with a board of trustees that, in the past, has shown itself to be quite reluctant to break with something revered by the Washington and Lee community: tradition.
On July 7, the board announced the formation of a new special committee to review the university’s name and symbols, but stated that it “has not pre-judged this issue and will not act hastily.” (Tradition, after all, does not often get along with haste.)
However, the board just rejected a petition in February from students asking for the option to receive a diploma that was not stamped with portraits of George Washington and Robert E. Lee, noting the design has been in use “since the 1870s.”
As an alumnus, I believe the board should look to one particular university tradition during its deliberations to find a guiding principle: Washington and Lee University’s coat of arms.
Created in 1901, the coat of arms combines the crests of both the Washington and Lee families and includes the Lee family motto, “Non incautus futuri,” which means, “Not unmindful of the future.”
The future students of my alma mater deserve a school that is fully committed to rejecting the mythologizing and deification of Robert E. Lee. They deserve a school that is not named for a traitor who led an army of traitors into war against the U.S. military so some human beings would remain property. They deserve a school that is “not unmindful of the future.”
The only remaining question then is what to call the school, if not “Washington and Lee.” That, too, has an easy answer, rooted in tradition.
Traditionalists, after all, love the school’s nickname — “Dubyuhnell,” a phonetic spelling of “W&L” — and the school’s Trident, which also combines the letters W and L (and adorns the uniforms of the university’s athletic teams). And, of course, there is the school mascot: the Generals. We need to keep the name of at least one general to make that work, and Washington would more than suffice.
So if you keep Washington as the W, then, how to get a new L?
It just so happens there is a revered landmark on the Washington and Lee campus known as the Ruins — the remains of the oldest building ever on the school’s grounds, from when it was known as Liberty Hall Academy and received its original gift from Washington.
So why not choose Liberty over Lee (and the forced servitude he represents)? Adopting the name “Washington and Liberty University” would allow the school to recognize its past, maintain its traditions and honor its motto to be “not unmindful of the future.”