Memorializing enslaved people at Washington and Lee

WandLMy seriously talented students are justifiably proud of their liberal arts college. The academic opportunities are excellent. Professors are dedicated to working closely with undergraduates in small classes and frequent office hours. The campus itself is lovely, staffed by friendly people, set in a charming small town, and surrounded by soft blue mountains. So the members of my winter course on African-American Poetry had mixed feelings when, as a January homework assignment, I asked them to read this timeline of African-Americans at Washington and Lee. They expressed pride about some entries, particularly the opening paragraph about John Chavis, the first African American to receive a college education in the United States; he completed his studies here in 1799, when we were still Washington Academy. Most entries dated from the 1800s up through the Civil Rights era, however, are shocking.

While my students read in and wrote about a rich poetic tradition–so much of which concerns history and memory–I asked them also to blog about a set of connected questions. Some of them came into the room already acutely aware of how race affects their academic and social lives, but I hoped everyone would begin to tune in to the prejudices that remain poisonously present here, not necessarily because we’re a southern institution but because we’re an American one. Wanting them to perceive also how racism can root deeply in a place, even in the bricks and mortar, I instructed them to take a walk, look around the physical campus, and analyze what implicit lessons art, architecture, and other elements teach about race at Washington and Lee. I limited blog access to class members, hoping to allow greater frankness. At the end of the class we decided to keep those limits. Students submitted lively posts I wish I could share more widely, though, on the sometimes-blinding-whiteness of this place–the “iconic white pillars” of our colonnade looming up out of the snow. “Whose tradition is it?” they asked, stepping back for a critical consideration of our buzzwords, and “Where’s the love for John Chavis?”–noting the prominence of statuary of white male slaveholders. One student remarked that the fraternities and sororities resemble plantation homes. Many of them noticed, too, that race isn’t the only elision: start counting portraits, for example, and you see how overwhelmingly white and male are the figures whose contributions we honor.

So how could we modify the implicit curriculum delivered by Washington and Lee’s physical campus? In particular, what commemorative work should we be doing on behalf of the enslaved African-Americans in W&L’s history? The timeline is an outstanding contribution, but most students have never seen it. It seemed to us that we need a range of monuments and events: some fixed or recurring, like statues and MLK Day programs, and some changeable. Student tour guides and Lee Chapel docents could have more to say about race here. There is curricular work to do and perhaps orientation programming. I’d love to see a permanent video exhibit in a major building, sampling a range of visual documents and texts (even poems–plenty of writers have studied here, including Christian Wiman and Lyrae van Clief-Stefanon). Our neighbor, the University of Virginia, is working on commemoration.  A pamphlet, some exhibitions–I know they don’t right the wrongs of the past. But they feel important to me just the same.

Of course, my class shouldn’t decide the scope or kind of remembrances we construct. That should be a big conversation involving many different constituents. On the other hand, the best work isn’t always done by committees. Sometimes artists and activists need to jolt the conversation. For now, I’ll let my students do it.

Junior Gingy Dixon observes: “On the lawn of the Colonnade stands an obelisk in honor of John Robinson, a man whose ‘donation’ of slaves is central to our university’s history. In Washington Hall, many artifacts and pieces of art related to George Washington sit in shiny display cabinets or hang below tasteful spotlights for visitors to admire. I take no issue with our school honoring its namesake benefactor and this nation’s first president, but I do take issue with the negligence of the people who built this hallowed institution and those who dared to bring about change… Wall plaques in Washington Hall bear etchings of influential monetary donors throughout the University’s history, which is fine, but it should also bear the names of the slaves who provided as crucial (if not more crucial) a service. They were treated as objects and not people because of their skin color, and therefore deserve to have their names displayed as prominently as the people who freely donated their money. Being a veritable institution of honor means honoring the past – ugly as it may be… if we own our history, we maintain our honor. Doing anything else is just weak.”

And from senior Brittany Lloyd, a Civil War buff and former Lee Chapel guide as well as a pretty damn good English major: “Remembering sometimes has to be gory and brutal and uncomfortable. It is easy to forget. It is vital to remember.”

5 thoughts on “Memorializing enslaved people at Washington and Lee

  1. Small steps, though we wish we could take grander steps. Your students, Lesley, are becoming the sorts of people who may take those steps. (I work at a Catholic institution…can you imagine that timeline? whew…)

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  2. Beautifully written. My son (an African American male) will be visiting and while I have some concerns, this entry eases them a little. A history fully acknowledged and embraced (when handled the right way) suggests honesty and openness.

    Like

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