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Confederate Battle Flags Removed From Virginia University Chapel

At least one historic flag to move to display in Lee Chapel Museum

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
    Margaret Voelzke
    The chapel at Washington & Lee

    Reproductions of Confederate battle flags have been removed from a campus chapel at Washington and Lee University.

    However, at least one historic flag will go on display in the Lee Chapel Museum, President Kenneth P. Ruscio wrote in a message to the W&L community, describing the venue as the appropriate place for an artifact.

    The decision comes three months after a group of African-American law students -- who refer to themselves simply as the Committee -- called on administrators to make amends for the school's Confederate background, the Washington Post reported in April.

    "The issue that [we] had is that it felt like the school was promoting a very horrible time in American history, and a flag that, to many African Americans, myself included, was a signal of oppression," law student Brandon Hicks told NBC Washington.

    "The museum is the appropriate place for the Confederate flag," he said.

    Confederate battle flags have been on display in the school's Lee Chapel since 1930.

    Initially, the flags on display were originals that had been captured by or surrendered to the Union Army during the Civil War. They were on loan from the Museum of the Confederacy, which is now part of the American Civil War Museum. 

    But in the 1990s, the university returned the original flags to the museum because the manner of display was causing them to deteriorate.

    The flags were replaced by reproductions, "which are not historic and are not genuine artifacts," Ruscio wrote.

    He used that as part of his decision to remove them, and to bring back at least one of the original flags for display in the chapel museum:

    Consequently, we will remove these reproductions from their current location and will enter into an agreement with the American Civil War Museum, in Richmond, to receive on loan one or more of the original flags, now restored, for display on a rotating basis in the Lee Chapel Museum, the appropriate location for such a display.

    Rising senior David Thomas, a member of the College Republicans, said he supported Ruscio's decision.

    "When you walk around campus, you see elements of history all around us," said Thomas. "There are positive aspects of history and negative ones as well. ...You have to have both; you can't just erase an aspect of history that was extra important to those of us in Lexington."

    Law student Hernandez Stroud said he was also comfortable with the decision to display artifact flags in the chapel museum.

    In fact, he said they probably should have been there in the first place.

    "I think it helps to make clear the purpose of the flags, because people won't then be guessing what those flags are and why they're there," said Stroud, who served as president of the Black Law Students Association last year but wasn't a member of the group that called upon the university for the changes.

    "Placing [the flags] in a historical, educational context is what's best," he said.

    Rising sophomore Alexandra Seymour said she was upset that some saw the flags as tarnishing the reputation of the school.

    "The issue of whether they remain in the actual chapel or not does not really make a difference to me; what upsets me more-so is the fact that students would accuse W&L of promoting slavery and racism instead of understanding the educational purpose behind the flags," she wrote in an email to NBC Washington.

    "Robert E. Lee was a Confederate, which is something that we can't change or should have to apologize for," she wrote. "While Lee was not perfect, he was a man of impeccable integrity who had an enormous impact on W&L."

    Washington and Lee, a private university in Lexingon, Virginia, has struggled with the diversity of its small student population, consisting of about 2,200 undergraduate and gradudate students, according to data on Forbes.com.

    According to that data, 2.96 percent of W&L students identify as black or African American, with another 2.07 percent identifying as multiracial.

    "My biggest concern was not with the lack of diversity, but a white-washing of history, some aspects of history that I felt should kind of be repudiated," Hicks said. "That was my biggest concern."

    The university has also acknowledged a history with slavery, which Ruscio wrote on Tuesday is a "regrettable" one that needs to be confronted.

    In 1826, the school inherited between 70 and 80 slaves. "Until 1852, the institution benefited from their enslaved labor and, in some cases, from their sale," Ruscio wrote.

    He said the university is developing a timeline of African-American history on campus.

    "We are committed to telling the University's history accurately, including the stories of many individuals who should not be overlooked," he wrote.

    Stroud said he was pleased by the university's response.

    "These are tough issues," he said. "They are age-old and as challenging as they were controversial, and no solution would have appeased everyone."

    However, a request by the Committee to cancel classes on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day remains unresolved. Ruscio said Tuesday that he'll leave the decision up to the undergraduate faculty -- but is urging them to rule against it, citing other university events that honor King. 

    Nonetheless, Hicks was pleased by the progress he's seeing.

    "It feels awesome," he said. "And it feels awesome to know that the university really values making the campus a more welcoming place. The letter that was issued by the president is a great first step. There's more to do, but it's a great first step."