“It’s time to let him go,” my colleague Toni Locy wrote regarding Robert E. Lee in The Nation, arguing that our beloved Washington and Lee University should change its name. She isn’t alone. The faculty voted 188 to 51 on July 6 on a resolution to the trustees asking that “Lee” be removed from our name. This followed a similar call from a separate petition of faculty and a letter from student government.

feature image of the iconic Colonnade at Washington & Lee

I’m glad I missed that Zoom faculty meeting, because at this point, I don’t know how I would’ve voted. I’m thinking of a more practical problem and waiting for this effort to get real by taking up the far more difficult question: What would the university’s name be without “Lee.” Washington University Virginia? This would distinguish it from Washington University St. Louis, as well as Washington College in Maryland, George Washington University in Washington D.C. and the University of Washington. But do we really want to be “Washington University Virginia”?

Changing the name of an institution is painful, on several levels. One level is simply unconscious identity, like the first look in the mirror after you’ve had your jug ears surgically pinned back. When they changed the name of my first college from Florida Presbyterian College to Eckerd, in response to a huge donation by the drugstore mogul, we who had already left winced a little, laughed at the new name, then let it go. But that was for a college that was only 12 years old, not 270, and the underlying issue was not a matter of fierce controversy and historical symbolism.

Changing W&L’s name would be a lot harder than changing the name of my church, the historic Episcopal church on the edge of campus that was called R.E. Lee Memorial Church until September 2017. It was a parish that Robert E. Lee had helped rescue, being its senior warden and benefactor in the five years he spent in Lexington as president of Washington College. The church’s name as a memorial to him was obviously more personal than Lee Highway or Lee High School. But the association with the Confederacy and “Lost Cause” myth hung around the church like toxic fumes. The “Lee” name was imposed in 1903, in the middle of the era when Confederate memorials were being unveiled as public icons for the legal apartheid system being constructed in Virginia. In the Episcopal tradition, it made no sense to name a church after a non-canonical figure, especially one known as a warrior for an anti-U.S., pro-slavery cause. It had been called Grace for more than 50 years, including during Lee’s tenure, giving us a lovely name to restore. Lee would have approved. You would think this would be an easy change.

It wasn’t. We hired a pair of consultants who led a committee through nine months of intense, prayerful work, focus groups, missed deadlines and hurt feelings. In the end, a 15-page report made many recommendations, including a return to the name “Grace.” That was the one suggestion that the vestry narrowly rejected. Then the unite-the-right rally happened in Charlottesville, in defense of a huge equestrian statue of Lee. The vestry (which I was on) voted again, and narrowly passed the name change. Many quiet actions quickly followed: a new sign out front, new stationery, new welcome signs at the four roadways entering Lexington. But feelings were raw, donations and membership falling. Two and half years later, our church is now an exciting, challenging, and loving place – as long as we don’t talk about “the late unpleasantness.”

If faculty and students at W&L are serious about getting Lee out, it’s time to begin the difficult work of debating a new name. Our church would have failed to make the change had it not offered a new name (which, fortunately, was also a former name).

“Washington” has problems, besides the confusion with other Washington campuses. An opinion column by Charles Blow in the New York Times argued that monuments to any slaveholder, not just Confederates, should be moved to a museum. He noted that George Washington owned over 100 slaves, pursued a runaway and signed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. The mystic bonds between General Washington and General Lee are hard to break; Lee modelled his own values, behavior and reputation on Washington (who also turned against his former commanders) and Lee married Martha Washington’s great-granddaughter, Mary Custis (who brought a plantation of slaves into the family).

A name change would be nothing new for W&L, if the institution is looking at tradition and precedent. It was Augusta Academy first, then Liberty Hall, then Washington College, or variations of those, and since 1870, Washington and Lee University. It would be good for a new name to express the university’s values – to teach students to think freely and critically, with “honor, integrity, and civility,” in the words of the mission statement. But “Liberty University” is already taken by Jerry Falwell Jr.’s illiberal encampment on the other side of the Blue Ridge, and purely abstract names can sound cheesy. Some of the most distinguished university names come from their location, where the location was obscure enough for the university to fill the word with gravitas: Oxford, Cambridge, Princeton.

My wife and I have been thinking about this problem. “Lexington” won’t do, because this home of W&L is itself taken to honor another Lexington (in Massachusetts, for the battle in 1775), as are the Lexingtons in almost every other Eastern state. So an idea came to Libby, my wife, which she shouted from two rooms away, “I’ve got it!” The county we’re in: Rockbridge.

If you live here, the name is too familiar. It smacks of rolling hills of cows and “Trump-Pence” signs. (My brother-in-law, a 1977 W&L alumnus who wouldn’t mind getting rid of “Lee,” reacted negatively, saying “Rockbridge University” sounds like a community college.) But to the outside world – waiting for this great little historical university to fill it with meaning over the coming decades – “Rockbridge” can denote rock (solid) and bridge (to the Futuri, in our Latin motto; or A Bridge to the Eighteenth Century, in Neil Postman’s droll book title).

Unlike “Lexington,” Rockbridge is a rare place name. When I google it along with another search word, I can usually find the article I seek by one of our students from The Rockbridge Report, our department’s weekly newscast and website. Rockbridge County is named for a magnificent rock formation called The Natural Bridge, a geological wonder that George Washington surveyed (the “G.W.” that is carved in the rock face is said to be his) and Thomas Jefferson owned. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson called it “the most sublime of Nature’s work.”

So there you have it: “Rockbridge University,” the former Washington and Lee. I’m ready to support a name change by offering this one. If allies in this movement have other ideas, let’s hear them. Let’s not make this a debate about Robert E. Lee, which is an interesting and morally laden debate – but endless. If we’re serious, let’s move to the next step and find a compromise that leads to real action and real change, even if it is in the realm of symbols.


Image Credit: the iconic Colonnade at Washington & Lee was taken by the author, Doug Cumming.

Doug Cumming

Doug Cumming

Doug Cumming worked for newspapers and magazines in Raleigh, Providence and Atlanta for 26 years before getting a Ph.D. in mass communication at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2002. Since then, he has taught at Loyola University in New Orleans and Washington & Lee University, where he is now a tenured associate professor of journalism. His first book, "The Southern Press: Literary Legacies and the Challenge of Modernity," has been published by Northwestern University Press. His father, Joe Cumming, was the Atlanta bureau chief for Newsweek magazine during the years of the Civil Rights movement.