Professor DeLaney discusses racism with relative of Robert E. Lee on campus

Lee emphasized the importance of conversation when creating more inclusive communities


The discussion was held at the Washington and Lee University Law School.

Liza Moore

Professor Ted DeLaney sat down with Reverend Robert W. Lee IV, a relative of Washington and Lee University’s namesake, to introduce his new book, “A Sin by Any Other Name: A Reckoning with South’s Past,” but the Q&A focused more on Rev. Lee IV’s perspective on racism in the country and how to combat it.

The Student Coalition for Campus Change and the Black Law Students Association at Washington and Lee University Law School helped sponsor the event. 

Co-Chair of the Student Coalition and President of BLSA Stefani Evans, 3L, said they decided to invite the great-great-great-great -nephew of Robert E. Lee “because he offered a unique perspective that we believed could add to our discussion on how the influence of Robert E. Lee should fit in on our campus life.”

Carliss Chatmin, an assistant professor at Washington and Lee Law and mediator of the Q&A, said the goal of the talk  was “to begin an open communication by bringing together two people with different histories.” 

DeLaney and Lee have lived different lives, but both have been active voices in the discussion of racism in America. 

Associate Professor of Sociology Lynn Chin said in an email to a students in one of her sociology classes that she and DeLaney agreed that the event did not meet its description as “listening in on a conversation” and that DeLaney was disappointed there wasn’t more back and forth. 

DeLaney is a fourth-generation native of Lexington who started attending Washington and Lee at the age of 40 after spending 20 years as a lab technician in the biology department. Delaney graduated cum laude in 1985 before getting his PhD in American history from William & Mary. 

Lee is a native of Statesville, North Carolina, who graduated from Appalachian State University before getting his Masters of Theological studies from Duke University Divinity School in 2017. Despite being related to a former president of the university, this was Rev. Lee IV’s first tour of Washington and Lee’s campus and his second visit.

“I was terrified to come here because of the weight of the history in this place,” Lee said. “There is a reality I have to face when I enter this campus.”

Lee said he wants to have a conversation to answer the looming snese of “what do we do now?” that includes everyone. He said the sturggle is finding a way to reach those who do not choose to participate or are not yet welcomed.

“Here at W&L, blacks are welcomed into the community but they do not have a place at the table,” Evans said. “Rev. Lee, because of his upbringing, sees things from his own perspective but is still not able to put himself in the shoes of blacks. Here at W&L, whites decide black issues from their own perspective.”

The university has been trying to navigate how to open up this narrative in order to create a more inclusive environment. The Commission on Institutional History and Community, of which DeLaney was a member, took a deep look at the university and came back with suggestions on how to foster inclusion and acceptance on campus.

Lee applauded the university for its work with the Commision for “doing a better job than the church because [the university] wants to have a conversation.” 

DeLaney has never spoken publicly about his opinion on the report that was released earlier this year, but in the Q&A, he said the Commission felt reluctant to make the suggestion to change the university’s name. 

“The change should not come from the Commission, but a groundswell from the community,” DeLaney said.

The Commission made several recommendation in its 2018 report, which included name changes to locations across campus, such as Robinson Hall, which was renamed Chavis Hall in 2018. But it did not recommend changing the university’s name or mascot.

 The Commission was formed in the wake of the events in Charlotesville, where one woman, Heather Heyer, was killed. 

“Charlottesville changed everything,” Lee said. “I think it’s because racism finally affected a white girl. Racism killed a white girl and now everyone is like ‘oh crap.’” 

Lee said it was hard to accept that “the statue that people were making into an idol is my uncle.”

Lee added that there are two versions of Robert E. Lee: the man and the caricature. When asked why he did not consider changing his name to distance himself from his relative, he said it is because he is a different man than Robert E. Lee was. 

“The Q&A also revealed the constant tension Rev. Lee faces between acknowledging the past wrong of his ancestor and at the same time feeling a sense of pride in his name,” Evans said.