The danger of addressing “history”

Do not make claims about the past if you have not studied it

Kamron Spivey

In a grassy field to the left of the Washington and Lee University Chapel rests the grave of William Graham, the first rector (or president) of this institute. You’ve likely never heard of him; most students never will. This is not because he was a terrible person or because he did very little for the early academy; on the contrary, he was admired by men across the states for his morals and devotion to education. The reason current students (and most faculty) don’t know his name is because the school populace has taken little to no interest in institutional history. This lack of information sows the seeds for misconception and ignorance about our university’s past.  

Take, for example, last year’s two protests to change the name of Washington and Lee University. Students and faculty alike stood at the entrance to Lee Chapel, claiming that this school encapsulated racism and inequality. And while most speakers focused on their campus experiences and interactions, some students and faculty delved into what they considered “history.”  

One student shouted that Lee’s only contributions to this institute was that he “shifted housing policy around and recruited students from the North.” This could not be more of an understatement. Lee’s brief presidency brought manifold innovations to a dying community: a modern Liberal Arts curriculum, implementation of fraternities, dances, and sports, hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations, and hundreds of new students (to name a few).  

A faculty member at one of the protests erroneously claimed that Lee “even beat up his loyal horse, Traveller.” Anyone who has ever read a single book about Lee knows that is absurd; Lee treated Traveller better than he treated himself! But the problem here is that these faculty and students are clearly not reading about Lee or his time as college president. 

Some students are not even reading recent Board of Trustees announcements. Instead, they write opinion pieces lamenting that “this institution will be observing Founders Day” this year, and that “As I accept my diploma…Lee’s image will be featured.” Both of these practices were publicly abolished in June of 2021. 

So, before you go on some rant about Lee and how our college is “a tourist attraction for racists!”, read a book, talk to a historian, and check out the monuments we have on campus that explain in better detail our institutional history. Come to Special Collections in the library and read some primary sources. I won’t guarantee that your perception of Robert E. Lee’s character will change, but at least you can ground your argument in evidence and come away with a greater understanding of our school and Lee’s nuanced life. 

If you still completely disagree with me after delving into our institutional history, great! Come share your own judgments at the next meeting of Students for Historical Preservation. I will not call you out if you make factual arguments (even if they criticize Lee), but I certainly will not condone the popular pseudohistory employed by ignorant students and faculty.

If you seek the sources of my quotes, or want reading suggestions, please reach out!