Former attorney general addresses Washington and Lee traditions

Loretta Lynch encouraged her audience in Lee Chapel to listen more in conversations about the building and its history


Loretta Lynch spoke about the importance of discussing history and tradition in Lee Chapel on March 7. Photo by Nolan Zunk, ’22.

Gus Cross

Speaking at Lee Chapel on March 7, the first African-American woman to serve as attorney general of the United States opened her talk by noting the importance of discussing history and tradition.

Appointed by Barack Obama in 2015, Loretta Lynch was the Contact Committee’s winter term speaker this year. She beat out five other potential female speakers, including a popular actress, a few well-known political figures and a political news correspondent.

Lynch was unafraid to dive right into the history and traditions of the university. One of the first things she noted was how much she appreciated the speaking tradition.

“It goes a long way in welcoming visitors and establishing Washington and Lee as a place where civility and tradition are important,” she said.

Lynch continued to speak on the idea of tradition on the Washington and Lee campus. She said the university’s traditions provide a sense of timelessness, but also present issues the school community has been dealing with for a long time.

“The struggle to deal with history as a force that has venerated some yet utterly silenced others is not new,” she said. “It’s just your turn.”

 Lynch’s speaking event occurred a week after the final presentation of four potential candidates for the to-be-established position of Director of Institutional History. The event also aligned with the beginning of several changes at Washington and Lee, following the publication of the Report on The Commission of Institutional History and Community.

The Commission’s report, a 119-page document that can be found on the Washington and Lee website, outlined several suggestions to the community–including changes to Lee Chapel. 

Some of the suggested changes have already been instituted. The doors to the statue of recumbent Lee in the chapel have been closed, and the military portraits of George Washington and Robert E. Lee were replaced with their civilian counterparts earlier this year.

The decision to hold Lynch’s speech in Lee Chapel, a setting some view as venerating a man who both revived Washington and Lee University and fought on behalf of slavery, ultimately came down to the size of the space and the logistics of setting up the event, according to the Contact Committee.

“The discussion came down to Lee Chapel having the most seating and being the easiest to set up with high quality speakers,” said Donald LeCompte, ‘21, the vice chair of logistics for the Contact Committee.

Contact Committee events are typically held in Lee Chapel. LeCompte said that makes it easy to assume future events will be in the space.

“We wanted to put the brakes on that and discuss the location as a committee,” said LeCompte.

A couple of speaking events have been held in held in Evans Dining Hall in the past, but it is a smaller space and the cost of setting up is higher. Will Schirmer, ‘20, the vice chair of finance, said Lee Chapel does not have any costs to set up audio and video. Evans is a different matter.

“It would be between $500 and $2,000 to set up in Evans,” Schirmer said.                                                                      

However, the attendance in Lee Chapel was low in comparison to past Contact events. The entire upper level of the chapel was empty, as well as many rows in the back on the main floor. Schirmer said he wished there were more people at the event, but he was unsure what specific reason or reasons led to lower attendance.

Pepe Estrada Hamm, ‘19, also noticed the low attendance but said he attributed it to the advertising.

“It wasn’t as well publicized as it could be,” he said. “I didn’t find out about it until the day before.”

During the Q&A portion at the end of the event, the Phi asked Lynch how she felt about speaking in Lee Chapel, given the controversy about the space. 

In response, Lynch removed herself from the question and instead directed people to listen more in conversation about the space. She also said it is important to discuss the painful history and how we listen to others who express concern over history.

“You need to ask: ‘Why is their pain important to me?’” she said. “Why is this important to the other person?”

Estrada Hamm said he thought the idea of Lynch speaking in Lee Chapel was interesting in the debate on the function and future of Lee Chapel.

“It is an interesting position,” Estrada said. “A person who is historic in breaking barriers speaking in Lee Chapel, a place named after someone who set up many of these barriers.”

Other students did not think about the use of the space, due to how frequently it is used for other events on campus.

“It’s a typical place,” said Autumn Smith, ‘22.

Mansi Tripathi, ‘22, said she felt Lynch might have been limited in what she felt comfortable saying.

“In a different setting, she might have said more on different policies,” Tripathi said. “She was probably restricted in what she could say in this setting.”

Despite any effect the setting might have had on attendance and comfortability, Contact Committee members said they thought Lynch did a great job effectively discussing the culture on the university’s campus.

“She had definitely done her homework on our university before coming and was able to speak to it,” said LeCompte.

Schirmer also appreciated her approach to the event and said he thoroughly enjoyed her speech.

“She was a great speaker and choice,” he said.