“Power concedes nothing without a demand.”
– Frederick Douglass
Washington & Lee has displayed Confederate flags in the chapel dedicated to Robert E. Lee since the 1930s… and now they won’t. All because 14 black Washington & Lee law students demanded that the university stop. Those students risked the consequence of potential employers who could and probably still will label them as agitators. They risked disapprobation from those in the dominant culture who still expect black people to “just get over” slavery, racial oppression, and continued racism. They risked time, energy, and stress that could have been devoted to finals or networking or just finding a good microbrew.
Ruscio released a statement last night revealing a compromise position with the group of black law students who call themselves “the Committee.” In pertinent part:
In 1930, several original and historic battle flags – “colors” that had been captured or surrendered to the Union army – were placed near the statue of Lee. The University did not own them. They were the property of the Museum of the Confederacy, now part of the American Civil War Museum, which asked us to return them in the 1990s because the manner of display in the chapel was causing their deterioration. They were replaced with reproductions, which are not historic and are not genuine artifacts.
The purpose of historic flags in a university setting is to educate. They are not to be displayed for decoration, which would diminish their significance, or for glorification, or to make a statement about past conflicts. The reproductions are not genuinely historic; nor are they displayed with any information or background about what they are. The absence of such explanation allows those who either “oppose” or “support” them to assert their own subjective and frequently incorrect interpretations.
Consequently, we will remove these reproductions from their current location and will enter into an agreement with the American Civil War Museum, in Richmond, to receive on loan one or more of the original flags, now restored, for display on a rotating basis in the Lee Chapel Museum, the appropriate location for such a display.
I’ve always subscribed to the Indiana Jones, “it belongs in a museum” approach to historical preservation. Uncomfortable history shouldn’t be whitewashed or glorified (or shamelessly commodified — see this 9/11 cheese platter). I would absolutely go to see an exhibit on the Confederate flag, but that’s entirely different from going to a school that proudly decorates itself in them.
The Committee had other demands, and not all of them were met because this ain’t a goddamn fairy tale. They wanted the school to recognize Martin Luther King Day, and Ruscio’s response was to have the faculty vote on it. He said he would urge the faculty to not cancel classes on that day though, instead preferring programs educating people about the life of Dr. King.
Perhaps the most interesting bit from Ruscio’s statement involves the university’s “study” of its role in slavery:
The University will continue to study its historic involvement with slavery. We acknowledge that this was a regrettable chapter of our history, and we must confront and try to understand this chapter. At Washington and Lee, we learn from the past, and this is an episode from which there is much to learn. In 1826, Washington College came into possession of between 70 and 80 enslaved people from the estate of “Jockey” John Robinson. Until 1852, the institution benefited from their enslaved labor and, in some cases, from their sale. Acknowledging that historical record – and acknowledging the contributions of those individuals – will require coming to terms with a part of our past that we wish had been different but that we cannot ignore.
Actually they could ignore it. The only thing that will stop them from ignoring it is for good people to demand better.
Good job, black law students at Washington & Lee. You put your asses on the line for something here, and found that you were strong.