By Gail Jarvis
For those of you who may not know, what is now Washington and Lee University, was created almost 30 years before the Declaration of Independence was signed. It was originally called Augusta Academy, and was founded by the Presbyterian Church to provide classical instruction for young men. During his presidency, George Washington made an endowment to help the finances of the struggling institution. As a result, the name was changed to Washington College, and its religious affiliation was ended.
It is historically significant that the first black to graduate from college in the United States, matriculated at this institution. That black student, John Chavis, a native of North Carolina, continued his collegiate studies in New Jersey, in an institution that would become Princeton University. Chavis became a prominent Presbyterian minister as well as a teacher who spent his career in North Carolina, instructing both white and black students. Washington and Lee honors his memory with Chavis House, a dormitory and gathering center primarily for minority students.
For a few years, Robert E. Lee served as the institution's president, and it was renamed Washington and Lee University. General Lee expanded its curriculum, which attracted a greater number of students. Lee is buried underneath Lee Chapel on the university's campus. The Chapel contains a statue of a reclining General Lee, surrounded by relics of his military career, including Confederate Flags.
This private liberal arts university currently has a student enrollment of roughly 2,100 and less than 3% of its students are black. But only seven of that 3% were offended enough to present a list of demands to the Board of Trustees. Their demands include the removal of Confederate flags from the memorial to the General in Lee Chapel. (Can you imagine the reaction from Morehouse College Trustees if seven white students demanded that the statue of Martin Luther King be removed from the campus because they are offended by some unfavorable aspects of King's career?)
Even though its black enrollment is minuscule, the university agreed to implement a program of African-American Studies four years ago. Washington and Lee already honors Martin Luther King Day, but undergraduates still attend classes and that has been deemed unacceptable by these seven black students.
Trustees, and other students, should make it clear to the hostile seven that they would probably be happier at another college, possibly Howard University or Spelman College. If they want to remain in the State of Virginia, there are at least five accredited primarily black colleges for them to choose from. Refunding all or part of the tuition, of these seven who are not on scholarships or grants, should be considered.
Some students have come to believe that their college years must involve finding something to protest. And, to get the media attention they crave, what is protested must correspond with one of the liberal establishment's pet causes. These students will cherish the relics of their media coverage for the rest of their lives, valuing them more than a college degree.
The majority of Washington and Lee students, both black and white, are not complaining, but trying to get an education – that is more important to them than Photo Ops. Surely the University Trustees will not consider any changes to traditions without conducting a referendum to get the opinions of the student body and contributing alumni.