A group of Black law students at Washington and Lee University are demanding that the school’s administration publicly denounce its Confederate past and distance the school from Robert E. Lee, one of the institution’s founders.
Calling themselves “The Committee,” several members told NewsOne that they and other Black law students were tricked by representatives of the school’s admissions office into believing the campus was diverse and welcoming to students of color when that was not the case. The members also claim that no one told them the degree to which Lee, the southern general who lead the Confederate Army during the Civil War, was celebrated at the institution.
Ashley Adams, 23, from Louisville, Ky., says that she was shocked during her first week on campus when presenters at the law school’s annual honors ceremony praised Lee’s Civil War accomplishments.
“There was a gentlemen who spoke about Lee’s honor,” she said. “He talked about how Lee fought in glory and how he is still glorified today in all of the battles that he won. He continued to talk about how honorable [Lee] was for fighting for the things he believed in and he talked about how we still need to fight for the things we believe in here in conjunction with Lee’s honor. This was a very uncomfortable situation for me, especially being a student of color. I was immediately turned off and I actually wanted to leave the school at this point.”
Adams says that she went to school administrators to express her discomfort with the ceremony, but claims no one followed up with her. In an effort to get the university address their concerns, The Committee wrote a letter to Washington and Lee’s board of Trustees demanding that the following issues be addressed by Sept. 1:
1. We demand that the University fully recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on the undergraduate campus.
2. We demand that the University stop allowing neo-Confederates to march on campus with confederate flags on Lee-Jackson Day.
3. We demand that the University immediately remove all confederate flags from its property and premises, including those flags located within Lee Chapel.
4. We demand that the University issue an official apology for the University’s participation in chattel slavery, including a denunciation of General Robert E. Lee’s participation in slavery.
In response, President Kenneth Ruscio sent an open letter to the Washington and Lee community addressing The Committee’s demands. Ruscio said that the school is already working on some of the students concerns.
“Last year I impaneled a special committee to explore the history of African Americans at Washington and Lee and to provide a report to me and to the community,” Ruscio wrote. “Elizabeth Knapp, senior assistant to the president, is convening that group. While we are aware of some of that history, I believe we should have a thorough, candid examination.”
Ruscio added that, besides Lee Chapel where the general is buried, he is not aware of any Confederate flags displayed elsewhere on campus. He noted that the law school celebrates MLK Day.
Currently, 34 Black students make up 8 percent of the law school’s total population.
Nora V. Demleitner, the dean of Washington and Lee’s law school, emailed NewsOne a response to The Committee’s accusations of being mislead:
I met with all the original members of the Committee, upon their request, immediately after they had sent their letter to the senior University administration.
While most of our discussion that evening focused on the demands in the letter, in the meantime I have met or spoken informally with many members of the Committee about their demands and also about changes they would like to see at the law school.
You raise questions about the law school admissions process. We disclose on our website the make-up of our student body and our faculty. The data has always been publicly available. Most of our students — diverse or not — perceive the law campus as welcoming and supportive of all students. In fact, many students — and our student engagement survey — indicate that they value in particular the opportunity to meet and become friends with students who are substantially different from them, which includes racial and ethnic differences.
Many of our students help in the recruitment process for the new class. They share their assessments of the campus and the academic and social climate at the law school freely. As a small law school which prides itself on the relationships students build with each other and with their faculty, we have always worked hard at including all of our students, and will do even more so in the days and weeks to come to assure that all of our students feel welcome and believe that they are full and valued members of our community. In the last year, for example, we have hired diverse faculty and administrators to increase the diversity within those groups as well.
I am saddened that some of our students do not feel that they belong or are fully accepted, and I will work to change that. I am also gratified that our students feel they should and can raise these issues to bring change and improve their law school.
The Committee members’ main complaint is that they feel the school could have done a better job explaining to minority students how the institution and the city of Lexington celebrates Lee and the Confederacy. The Confederacy has a very conflicted history among Black and White residents–especially in the South. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported in 2011 that while many Americans have no emotional reaction to the Confederate flag, African-Americans far more than Whites see it as a negative symbol.
Dominik Taylor, who is in his third and final year of law school, is one of them.
In addition to campus life being alienating, he experienced uncomfortable moments in the city of Lexington as well. In 2011, the same year the city council passed an ordinance forbidding the displaying of the Confederate Flag on city property, Taylor says he was surprised by a “Save The Flag” parade.
“These people dressed in Confederate regalia marched up and down the town displaying flags,” he said. “It was like the damnedest thing. The University didn’t warn us at all.”
However, not all of the law students support The Committee members. Second-year law student Hernandez Stroud says many of the Black students he’s spoken with think The Committee’s actions are divisive.
“I think that a lot of people believe that water could have been used to solve these issues instead of fire,” Stroud, who is also president of the school’s Black Law Students Association, told the Washington Post.
Members of The Committee aren’t the only students who have protested about racial isolation on campus, though. Calling themselves UCLA 33, a group of minority law students released a YouTube video in February decrying the racial animus they say is directed towards them on campus.
Alexis Gardner, one of the students who appeared in the video, got this note in her mailbox in response:
At Harvard, a group of Black students started a Tumblr, “I, Too, Am Harvard,” which highlights photographic reflections of the racist things White classmates have said to them. Like this photo of student who apparently had no business at the Ivy League school:
“There is still this idea that Black people don’t belong there,” said Jelani Cobb, director of the Institute for African American Studies at the University of Connecticut. “That they’ve been given something that they don’t deserve. That they’ve been given something out of a sense of racial compensation for the past. In a real sense, it highlights the bigger issue about race, which is not simply a calcified attitude about people of a different background. It’s very much about resources and access. That’s where this competition comes from. There is a belief that when Black people gain something, White people lose something. They are taking a space that could have gone to a deserving White student without ever asking whether there is a student of color who didn’t get in because a White student did.”
That Black students still feel alienated on predominately White campuses as we approach the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education comes as no surprise to Tanisha C. Ford, assistant professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst, who has written about race and racism on college campuses.
“Mainstream institutions of higher learning were never designed to admit and educate Black and Brown students,” Ford said. “Over one hundred years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, sixty years after Brown versus the Board [of Education], we’re still feeling the effects of White supremacy and discriminatory practices at these institutions.”
Committee members say they understand why some would be skeptical of their delayed accusations of an unwelcoming environment—especially since the school is named after a man who is arguable the primary symbol of the Confederacy and southern resistance. But Adams said she would have appreciated the school being more upfront about it so she could have made a more informed opinion over whether to attend or not.
“I want the university to address and acknowledge these things,” Adams said. “The university has actually cleaned up its history and has given a version of history that they like, as is the case in many American history books. I want them to address our issues of being uncomfortable. They are telling this story to other minority students and continue to get other minority students to get higher rankings. But they are not addressing our issues. They’re trying to silence us. We want to ensure that other people know that these are issues before coming to this school so they are not bamboozled the way that we were.”