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Wherein W&L Law Makes Headlines Over Confederate Flags in a Tomb

By William Peacock, Esq. | Last updated on

Three years I spent in fair Lexington, Virginia, as a law student at the world's greatest law school, Washington and Lee. And in three years, I never once saw a Confederate flag, at least on campus. Off-campus, sure. But never on campus.

There are a few things you have to understand about old Dubyanel. It's in the rural South. And the University is recognized as both one of the top liberal arts schools and law schools in large part because of two men: George Washington and Robert E. Lee.

Washington donated James River Canal stock, which still provides funding for the university's students today. Lee, after he lost the Civil War, turned Washington College from a backwoods school to a world-class university, and annexed the nearby Lexington Law School. Both men are revered for their contributions to the school, even if both had ties to slavery. And despite Lee's ties to the Confederacy, this is a modern university -- there are no battle flags flying over the Colonnade, or displayed proudly in the classrooms.

But there is the Lee Chapel, and beneath it, his family tomb and museum. W&L's motto is "non incautus futuri" (not unmindful of the future), but the school, and the town, take the past very seriously as well.

The Committee

Why are we discussing men who died in 1799 and 1870, respectively? It's because of a recent protest by a group of black law students, who call themselves "The Committee." They've issued a list of four demands, according to Above the Law:

    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.

    If the school does not act by SEPTEMBER 1, 2014 we WILL engage in civil disobedience.


It should be noted, and has been noted by the law school in their response to Above the Law, that the law school does not have classes on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

The undergraduate side, on the other hand, sets their own academic calendar [PDF]. It does not provide time off for MLK day, nor Lee-Jackson Day, Veterans Day, or Columbus day. Maybe that makes it okay. Or maybe it doesn't.

Even Founders' Day, which recognizes Mr. Washington and Mr. Lee, only provides for a modified schedule, to accommodate an ODK Convocation. (This year's speech, incidentally, discussed Martin Luther King and our nation's checkered past with race.)

No Parades

This is a tough one. The one time I ever saw a Confederate flag, besides the occasional bumper sticker in the Wal-Mart parking lot, was in town, on Lee Jackson Day. I was strolling through downtown, looked to my right, and saw a gaggle of white people standing in a park with dozens of Confederate flags. Initially, I was confused by the flags, then by the fact that Lexington had managed to attract more than a dozen people to a spot other than Wal-Mart. I then dipped into the nearest bar to avoid what I feared was some sort of rally.

Lee-Jackson Day, a state-recognized holiday, can be a bit unnerving to us non-Southerners, or to black people. But the holiday revelry has nothing to do with the University. Lexington is a Southern town, the home of Stonewall Jackson and the resting place of Robert E. Lee. It's not a surprise that the United Daughters of the Confederacy has a local office there, or that on Lee Jackson Day, that the parades happen.

The city, for the record, has banned the use of city light poles for Confederate Flags, but unless you want the city and the university to line up all six of the town's police officers, and the four campus security guards, to quash the locals' speech, the parade issue is probably not going to be resolved any time soon. (There's an obvious parallel to KKK parades and rallies, which are routinely allowed elsewhere in the United States.)

No Confederate Flags

If there are any Confederate flags on campus, they really need to go. Except, perhaps, those in the Lee Chapel and Museum.

The Lee Chapel is a building, a tomb, and a museum dedicated to the guy who, besides fixing Washington College, was the Confederate General. The building is, amongst other things, is a National Historic Landmark. Pulling down Confederate flags out of a museum seems like an attempt to hide or rewrite our nation's history, espeically the parts of it we'd like to forget.

Maybe the solution is to not have school events in the Chapel. But removing the flags entirely, and ignoring the past, doesn't seem like a reasonable alternative.


Fair enough. George Washington had slaves. Robert E. Lee fought for a so-called nation that wanted to maintain slavery. The University itself, much like nearly everything else in the South, likely participated in, and profited from, chattel slavery. At one point, our whole nation did.

It's a dark and shameful past, and much like it shouldn't be ignored by hiding or removing flags, it also shouldn't be ignored by failing to apologize for or denunciate those misdeeds.

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