Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, will keep its name after the board of trustees of the private liberal arts college rejected an effort to reconsider paying homage to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
A motion to change the name of Washington and Lee University was defeated by a vote of 22-6, the school announced Friday. Votes cast by the trustees, including alumni and the university president, are not made public.
Established in 1749 as the Augusta Academy, the school was renamed for George Washington in 1796 after the former Revolutionary War hero offered a sizable endowment while serving as the country’s first president.
Lee, who commanded the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, was named president of then-Washington College beginning shortly after the American Civil War ended in 1865. He served as the school’s president until his death in1870.
The institution was subsequently renamed to also honor Lee, and his remains were buried on campus in a chapel crypt. In recent years, Washington and Lee has faced mounting efforts to stop honoring the Confederate general.
In a letter addressed to the Washington and Lee University community, its board of trustees said more than 15,000 students, faculty, staff, alumni and parents had offered input over the last year regarding the future of the school.
“While we heard broad support for advancing our commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion on campus, we found no consensus about whether changing the name of our university is consistent with our shared values,” said part of the letter.” Nor is there consensus on whether changing the name will position the university to be the most successful it can be in the future. Sharp disagreements among people who love the university demonstrate the difficulty of the issue before the board.”
The letter said Lee‘s name was added to the school “in recognition of his leadership in saving and transforming the school after the devastation of the Civil War” and that it a memorial to neither he nor George Washington.
“Although our name recognizes the connections of our namesakes to the institution, it also has broader significance, representing common experiences and values that are independent of the personal histories of the two men, the board said.
The board said it would change the name of Lee Chapel above where Lee is buried, however, and that it has decided to discontinue its annual Founders Day, traditionally held on Lee‘s birthday each year.
“We regret the university‘s past veneration of the Confederacy and its role in perpetuating ‘The Lost Cause’ myths that sustained racism,” the school board said in the letter.
Several community members called the board’s decision into question afterward for refusing to sever its association with a secessionist slave owner who fought to further the forced enslavement of Black people.
“Dismantling structural racism in an institution built to maintain white supremacy will be extremely difficult. How can we trust W&L to achieve the difficult when it can’t do the bare minimum of changing the school name?” alumna and lawyer Gail Deady said on Twitter.
“Lee‘s legacy is as a white supremacist, slave master, and traitor who betrayed his oath of office. He will always be known for that. Despite what some may want, we can’t wish those associations away.” Washington and Lee Law School professor Chris Seaman said in a series of messages he posted on Twitter as well.
Efforts to rid the nation of Confederate monuments ramped up last year following the racially charged murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man killed by a White police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Ninety-four Confederate monuments were removed from public view in 2020, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, all of them after Floyd’s murder last May.