A celebration of Lee-Jackson Day cannot continue in the campus chapel that honors its namesake Confederate general, Washington and Lee University has decided — citing rancor that still lingers from the Civil War.
For more than a decade, Lee Chapel has been the site of a ceremony held by the Stonewall Brigade of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group that gathers in Lexington every January for the state holiday that commemorates Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
But in a decision announced this week, W&L denied a request by the confederate veterans group to rent the university-owned chapel for next year’s Lee-Jackson Day.
Hosting the program is no longer an appropriate use of Lee Chapel, W&L spokesmen Brian Eckert said, in light of the “distortion, misstatements and inflammatory language” the school has endured from members of the organization upset with its decision last year to remove Confederate flags from part of the chapel.
“The persistent name-calling, vilification and uncivil attacks in messages to the university, letters to the editors of local newspapers and social media postings have persuaded us that our original intent to make the chapel available would not be appropriate,” Eckert said.
“We simply are not going to allow our own facilities to be used as a place from which those attacks can be made.”
The unrest stems in large part from moves made last summer by the school, after a group of six law students who called themselves “The Committee” complained that Confederate flags hanging in the chapel were offensive to minority students.
University President Kenneth Ruscio later announced that replica flags in the building would be removed because they were not being presented in an educational manner. But the school left room for authentic, historic Confederate flags in the chapel’s museum.
Smoldering anger over that decision was stoked by the recent national controversy that erupted when a man charged in a mass shooting at a South Carolina church was seen in photographs embracing the Confederate battle flag. The application by the Sons of Confederate Veterans to use Lee Chapel next year was made in the aftermath of that event.
One email to Ruscio provided by the school this week contained in the subject line: “A CRIME IS GOING TO BE COMMITTED.”
Another message on social media stated: “I, personally, would like to take the members of the ‘committee’ to the woods around Lexington and introduce the members, individually, to certain trees and have them ‘decorate’ those trees with their presence. Then the members of the ‘committee’ would know what I think of their ultimatum.”
“May you and the 6 idiots burn in hell,” another missive read.
The messages were from people who identified themselves as members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Eckert said.
In a letter dated Monday, the school informed W.B. “Doc” Wilmore, a member of the Confederate veterans group’s Stonewall Brigade who made a formal request to rent the chapel for a two-hour event, that such a use would not be in the best interest of the school.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” Wilmore said Wednesday.
Wilmore said he was not aware of any threatening or harassing messages directed to the university by members of his group.
“We’ve been doing it for a long time and we’ve never had any problems with anybody,” he said of the ceremony at Lee Chapel that had been held on the Saturday after Lee-Jackson Day, which Virginia observes on the Friday before the national Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“It’s all positive,” he said. “It’s not racial or derogatory about anybody.”
When Ruscio announced changes to flag displays in Lee Chapel last July, he said the school planned to continue to allow non-university groups to use the building on occasion, including the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
“But he also made it clear that the university would not permit any outside group to use the campus as a platform for displays or protests,” Eckert said.
The school had hoped the Confederate veterans group would understand the desire for original flags — not replicas — in appropriate parts of the chapel. “But the university has been targeted by many individuals who identify themselves as members and officers of the SCV and other self-described heritage groups for a campaign of criticism that has been filled with distortions, misstatements and inflammatory language directed at the university, its students, faculty, administration and alumni,” Eckert said.
Wilmore sees the school’s actions as political correctness run amuck.
“I’m just totally fed up with the whole situation,” he said.
But he acknowledged that W&L, as the chapel’s owner, has the right to say who can and cannot use the property, which is a main gathering spot for campus events. The building holds special significance for the school, which was supported by George Washington and later led by Lee, who served as its president in the years after the Civil War. Lee is interred in a crypt beneath the chapel.
The chapel was not used for the January memorial service this year because it was closed at the time for renovations. It reopened in March.
Wilmore’s group still plans to hold several Lee-Jackson Day tributes, including a historical presentation at a local motel and a memorial service at the Lexington cemetery where Jackson is buried. Efforts are under way to find a new place for the commemoration for Lee that had been held in the chapel, he said.
“We’re going to have it somewhere,” Wilmore said. “If we have to have it in the middle of a cornfield, we’re going to have it.”