Why R.E. Lee Church was right to change its name

Alexandra Cline

After a years-long debate and in-fighting among its members, R.E. Lee Memorial Church finally voted to change its name last week. It’s a change that drastically impacts the small town known for its ties to the Confederate general – one who called this place home centuries ago. As Lexington is a town that still grapples with its connection to Confederate history, removing the church’s name is a symbolic step in the direction of inclusion.

Without a doubt, however, Lee made a positive impact on the church and other notable sites in Lexington – namely the school that retains his namesake. Absent of Lee, Lexington likely wouldn’t have become the highly-educated and still-thriving college town that it is today. Without Lee’s contributions to the church, it may not have survived after the war either. Those facts cannot be taken for granted, for they are the reasons that I have been fortunate to attend Washington and Lee and to consider Lexington my second home.

Lee, himself, understood issues with glorifying Confederate history and putting salt into the post-war wound. It’s only fitting that one of Lexington’s landmarks decided to change course by 2017. While the Lee name is undoubtedly associated with many aspects of history, its most obvious association is with defense of slavery. In a period when racial tensions have been especially high, holding onto this aspect of history seems problematic at best and disastrous at worst.

Given the recent events in Charlottesville, another college town only an hour away, Lexington’s small step in detachment could not have happened at a more transformative time. White supremacists and neo-Nazis have turned Lee and other Confederate generals into a rallying call, regardless of whether it’s right or wrong. The mere fact that these deplorable groups have clung to the history of these generals is more than enough reason to rethink the monuments and dedications in their honor. Lee fought for the Confederacy, the side of the south, the side that battled to preserve the institution of slavery – an institution that still impacts the U.S. centuries later.

When students and other community members walk into Lexington, it is unfair and unjust to remind them of that history with exaltation. Lexington can still be a place remembered for its universities and small-town charm – not its tumultuous past. Its history can never be changed or erased, but creating dialogue and denouncing its slave-holding past can move this town in a better direction.