Last Saturday morning, the Duke community awoke to find out about President Price’s decision to remove General Robert E. Lee’s effigy from the entrance of the Chapel. The carving of Lee has been at the forefront of a campus-wide debate that is itself an offshoot of a nation-wide conversation involving the historical integrity of Confederate monuments. On the heels of the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville - which was gathered in part to object to the removal of a Confederate monument in a city park - Durham made national headlines last Monday after a group of protesters converged on the county courthouse and toppled a Confederate monument. Consequently, following such politically strained events, the Gothic Wonderland’s own carving of Robert E. Lee came under national scrutiny as well.
In the days leading up to Price’s decision, discussions within the Duke community became animated around the issue of Robert E. Lee’s future on the Chapel’s entrance. Letters to the editor written by various alumni and students were published by the Chronicle, while an online petition calling for the statue’s removal was widely circulated. Following the disfiguring of the Chapel’s carving of General Lee on Tuesday, Vice President of Student Affairs Larry Moneta even penned an op-ed in the News and Observer decrying the defacement of historical memorials. Ultimately, however, the Duke community decided that whatever historical benefits there might be to maintaining General Lee’s statue were far outweighed by the generational pain and racist legacy that the stone carving carried.
Opponents to Lee’s removal from the Chapel have emphasized the historical importance of preserving such monuments for posterity, no matter the politics being represented. However, what this perspective fails to recognize is that the action of removing such monuments is not an erasure of the past, rather it is a continuation of history, especially considering the ugly narrative of race relations within the United States. Perhaps it was only too fitting that Takiyah Thompson, a young black student-activist, took the lead in taking down Durham’s Confederate monument, demolishing a statue that for decades stood to memorialize a nation that had enslaved her ancestors. Clearly, this movement is part of a longer struggle connected to a legacy of slavery and white supremacy. To suggest that these statues serve only as a “memorial” implies that racism remains a specter that needs only to be remembered as an ancient relic rather than a living, breathing component of our present society.
The argument that defacing such morally bankrupt memorials can be equated to the vandalism of other historical monuments falls flat as well. In his op-ed in the News and Observer, written in the aftermath of the statue’s disfigurement Tuesday, Moneta likened the toppling of Durham’s Confederate statue with the recent defacement of a Holocaust Memorial in Boston. Such a comparison fails to recognize the stark ideological differences between the two acts and echoes the ethically dubious assertion expressed by President Trump that “both sides” were to blame for the violence in Charlottesville. Moreover, Moneta’s complacency with the deeply flawed North Carolinian “democratic” system for resolving such matters is evidence that he and so many others at Duke lack an in-depth understanding of the structural inequity of the state’s political sphere.
In the end, President Price, heeding the majority sentiment of the campus community, has decided that Mr. Lee - both in his physical effigy and the hateful racial politics that he embodies – does not belong at Duke. The decision will surely be looked back on in Duke history as the right one. Significant credit is owed to the Duke community for actively lobbying and mobilizing for the statue’s removal. As active stakeholders within the university, we have a duty to let our voices be heard on such crucial matters facing our community - voices that will ultimately affect decision-making even at the highest level of campus administration.