How do you feel about portraits of prominent slaveholders? If you’re against them, then you’ll probably be sympathetic to a new petition circulating at Washington & Lee University. You see, diplomas at that school display portraits of the school’s namesakes, George Washington and Robert E. Lee, and law school students are circulating a petition to allow students the option of a diploma without the slaveholders’ pictures.
The students take issue with the legacies of both namesakes. Washington’s place in history is somewhat complicated because while he did a pretty good job as the country’s first president, he was also an extremely problematic slave owner. Lee’s role in leading the Confederate forces makes his historical significance more straightforward, and a symbol of the racist legacy of slavery that mars the United States’ history.
“Given the aftermath of the 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville and the heightened awareness of making Washington & Lee an inclusive and compassionate environment to all students, we believe this request provides alumni the ability to honor their alma mater without the presence of the portraits that some may find controversial or offensive,” the petition reads.
The petition has been signed by students, alumni, faculty, and staff and is supported by the law school’s Student Bar Association; the Women Law Students Organization; the Black Law Students Association; OutLaw; the Jewish Law Student Association; and the Latin American Law Student Association.
But of course, the move is not without controversy. As reported by Law.com, a group — Generals Redoubt — that “seeks to prevent further retreat from the University’s history, values and traditions; protect revered campus buildings; and continue to honor the magnificent contributions of its Founders” [yikes] had something to say about the petition:
“The petition is a symptom of strong undercurrents within the university to dismantle the traditions, values and history of Washington and Lee,” according to a statement released this week by the Generals Redoubt, a group that says it’s dedicated to the preservation of the tradition and history of Washington and Lee University. “The removal of the likeness of George Washington and Robert E. Lee, which adorns the offices and homes of many of our alumni is a severe affront to the generous and loyal alumni who respect the character and values of our namesakes.”
Yeah… they are trying to take a stance against a value shared by the school’s namesakes — specifically the value that you can own people.
As for the university’s powers-that-be, a spokesperson said university president William Dudley has yet to officially receive the petition and the school has no comment.
Listen, I’m on board with all the attempts to stop valorizing the Confederacy and agree that Washington’s legacy is correctly under fire. But… I’m not sure removing these portraits does a lot. The school is still named after these problematic folks, and their names will still be displayed on the diploma even if the petition is successful. I suppose it is a step in the right direction, but not giving your hard-earned money (or Sallie Mae’s money that you’re on the hook for) to an institution named after a Confederate general might be a better one.
Kathryn Rubino is a Senior Editor at Above the Law, and host of The Jabot podcast. AtL tipsters are the best, so please connect with her. Feel free to email her with any tips, questions, or comments and follow her on Twitter (@Kathryn1).