Washington And Lee Confronts The Weight Of Its History

Washington and Lee University has decided to meet some demands from minority students concerned about racism on campus. Among the university's concessions is the removal of Confederate flags from the campus chapel. Melissa Block talks with the university's president, Ken Ruscio, about the school's decision and its investigation into its historical involvement with slavery.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Now a story about race, history and the power of symbol. Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, has agreed to remove Confederate flags from its Lee Chapel, responding to pressure from a group of black law school students. The chapel and the university bear the name of Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee, who became the university's president after the Civil War.

The decision to remove the flags and to confront the University's historic involvement with slavery was announced by Washington and Lee president, Kenneth Ruscio, who joins me now from Lexington. Welcome to the program.

KENNETH RUSCIO: Thank you, Melissa. It's good to be here.

BLOCK: And there were several demands from this group of black law students, removing the Confederate flags was one of them. Why did you decide that this was the right thing to do?

RUSCIO: Well, Melissa, one context point in - these issues really have been talked about at Washington and Lee for some time, you know, the involvement with slavery, many other issues related to race here at Washington and Lee. But I think, you know, this was a time, really, to address a difficult question head-on and to say, yeah, this is part of our history and how can we deal with the complexity of history? So I think the timing was right and it was in part, but I would say not entirely, because of some of the requests from the law students.

BLOCK: And if I understand this right, the flags that were removed were reproductions - they weren't original flags. But you will have original Confederate flags in a different part of campus, right - in a museum?

RUSCIO: Yeah, you know, as you begin to look into the history of the flags in Lee Chapel, it got more and more complex and more and more complicated. They were original battle flags that were not even the university's property, but were the property of The Museum of the Confederacy. And those original flags were not being displayed in a historically appropriate way. And so they were taken back by The Museum of the Confederacy because they were deteriorating. And they were replaced by reproductions. It made very little sense to have reproductions there, they serve no educational purpose. And if there is any educational purpose, that would be more appropriate in an actual museum, which we have.

BLOCK: I want to ask you about another demand from the black students who call themselves the committee, they want Washington and Lee to issue an official apology for the university's participation in chattel slavery - I'm reading from their statement here - and a denunciation of Robert E. Lee's participation in slavery. So why don't you walk us through what the university's history is with slavery.

RUSCIO: You know, as a national liberal arts college, we respect history. And part of our history is, in fact, that the university was given an estate back in 1826 and that estate included between 70 and 80 slaves. And for a period of time - a little over 20 years - those individuals were either used for labor in the town, or in a few cases, were actually sold. And that is a part of our history and that is part of something that we need to learn from.

BLOCK: Now in terms of the demand for an official apology for the university's role with slavery, in your statement, you say this was a regrettable chapter of our history that has to be confronted, but you also said that you wouldn't apologize for the crucial role that Robert E. Lee played in shaping this institution. So not an official apology for the university's connection with slavery itself, although you say it is regrettable.

RUSCIO: Yeah, and, you know, I'm in a position where I represent the university and I am stating what I believe to be something the university ought to acknowledge and ought to acknowledge with regret. It is a part of our history that we wish were different, but it wasn't.

You know, the question of Robert E. Lee is that he devoted five years of his life to the institution as president and made some very, very significant contributions during his time here. And as I had said in other contexts, Robert E. Lee was absolutely an imperfect individual living in imperfect times. And to understand the complexity, understanding the totality of a record of an individual, is clearly the first step that we have to take as a community. And I think that's where I would head first.

BLOCK: So not an apology, per se.

RUSCIO: That's right.

BLOCK: And why not?

RUSCIO: Well, because what I can do as president of the university is to say, here is what the institution has done and here's the institution's record. That's a little bit different than saying, here's the biography of a man, only part of which applied to the university. And it's more for historians, I think, to debate that over time as they do.

BLOCK: What is the racial makeup of the student body at Washington and Lee?

RUSCIO: Total American minority population is on the undergraduate side, about a little over 11 percent. The total American minority on the law side is 16.6 percent. Within that group, African American students are, on the undergraduate side, a little under 3 percent, and at law, about 8 percent.

BLOCK: President Ruscio, there does seem to be a deeper theme that's underlying the demands from the black students because in their letter back in April, they talk about psychological shackles at Washington and Lee. They want the university to welcome students of color. Is there a broader problem of alienation and how black students are integrated into the student body at Washington and Lee?

RUSCIO: That is an issue that we try to address, we try to understand. I'd - you know, I will say that in my conversations with black students, you know, there are variations, of course, in how the experiences of black students have gone. And there are many, many who have told me that their experience here has been everything they hoped it would be.

BLOCK: There have been some who have called the decision to remove the flags a disgrace, people who say they should just go ahead and remove Lee's name from the school. Are you concerned that there will be alumni who will withdraw their support - their financial support - to the University?

RUSCIO: You know, that is just not something that frankly enters this kind of calculation. I think that in our roles, I think, as leaders of institutions, when you know you're going to face criticism, you decide to do what's right. And you hope that people respect it even if they disagree with you on that.

BLOCK: Well, Mr. Ruscio, it's good to talk to you. Thanks so much.

RUSCIO: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: That's Kenneth Ruscio, the president of Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.

SIEGEL: This is NPR News.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.