Tracing the history of Duke Chapel's Robert E. Lee statue

The Confederate general's figure stands at the Chapel's entrance. How it got there remains somewhat mysterious.

Tracing the history of Duke Chapel's Robert E. Lee statue
  Adam Beyer, Carolyn Chang

A violent white nationalist rally last weekend centered around plans to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee near University of Virginia’s campus.

Many people are unaware that since 1932, Lee's figure has also been displayed prominently in the heart of Duke's campus—outside the doors of the Chapel.

Walking up to the Chapel's front doors, the nearly life-size statue of Lee is affixed to the right wall between statues of Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, and Sidney Lanier, a poet who served in the Confederate army. A 2014 Chapel brochure describes Lee as a “soldier of the South and president of Washington and Lee University” and names all three figures as “great men of the American South.”

The brochure notes that the letters “US” were accidentally engraved on Lee’s belt buckle in the statue, instead of “CSA” for Confederate States of America. Although the letters were scratched out, they still remain visible. Yet who exactly ordered Lee’s statue to be placed in the Chapel is somewhat of a mystery.

Robin Kirk, a lecturer in the department of cultural anthropology, said Lee's inclusion was likely intentional, given that right across from these sculptures is a set of three religious figures. These include Girolamo Savonarola, a Florentine monk, as well as Martin Luther, father of the Protestant Reformation, and John Wycliffe, who worked on translating the Bible into English.

“If you look on the left side, those figures have some relation to religion, so the presence of Lee and Lanier does really stand out,” Kirk said. “This was a very deliberate decision to put these two figures of history and include them in what was the Duke’s centerpiece for this new campus. The symbolism is really meaningful.”

President Vincent Price, who took office July 1, said he is still learning about Duke’s history but has heard that there has long been ambiguity and confusion about the statue.

“It is a fascinating history with which I intend to become more familiar as I hope others will so we can better understand the ways our past intersects with our present,” he said.

When asked if he would consider removing the statue as some have suggested, he said: “I at this point would prefer to know more about the circumstances and the history myself before I comment on what actions might come.”

Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, wrote in an email that any considerations to remove the statue would involve open dialogue with the Duke community.

“Our approach to matters such as this should be to engage in an open, thoughtful and deliberative process across the entire Duke community, consistent with our mission as an educational institution,” he wrote.

The statue's history

The Chronicle reached out to the University Archives, which provided several documents from when the statue was installed in the early 1930s. The documents do not fully explain how the statue came to be included in the Chapel, however.

One of the documents comes from the memoirs of John Donnelly, who wrote that his firm had primary responsibility for all “models, sculpture and stone carving on the complete University program.”

Donnelly reached out to an unnamed Vanderbilt University professor, and the two then decided by mutual agreement which figures to include in the portal, including Lee, according to the memoirs.

There is no indication of who gave final approval of the statues.

In September 1932, Duke President William Preston Few wrote to William R. Perkins, an attorney and trustee of The Duke Endowment, about the statue, calling it a “disappointment.”

“Do you think there is anything to be done about the Lee statue in the entrance to the Chapel, or should we just accept it as one of the sore disappointments of life?” Few wrote.

However, the letter does not elaborate on why Few thought it was a disappointment. The letter does not indicate whether Few disagreed with the decision to include a statue of Lee or whether he had a different concern. 

In January 1907 the University, then known as Trinity College, held a ceremony celebrating Lee. Few, then a dean, presided over the meeting and introduced President John Kilgo to deliver the address about Lee.

“Never did anyone leave the Earth with a more spotless Christian record than Robert E. Lee. He is the one American character that we can put against Gladstone of England,” Kilgo said in 1907. “For these reasons, I believe that Robert E. Lee should hold the first place in our history and be the guiding star of our heavens.”

Perkins’ response letter to Few in 1932 suggests the Few's "disappointment" could have been that the statue did not look enough like Lee. Perkins wrote that he did not think anybody would ever “take it to be Lee,” and added that it was unclear whether attempting to get a different statue of Lee or a different figure altogether would fix the problem.

The minutes of an April 1932 meeting of the Building Committee of The Duke Endowment could also support this interpretation. Perkins and Chairman George C. Allen said they were informed the statue was intended to represent a well-known Southern general. However, the two indicated there was no likeness to be found.

Committee Secretary Alex Sands then read a letter from John Donnelly, Inc. to Horace Trumbauer, who was the Chapel's architect. According to the letter, the figures were meant to be symbolic.

The committee then voted on a motion on how to consider the statues.

“After discussion, on motion duly made and seconded, it was decided that these statues should be decorative symbolical figures, and not as representing or to be known as representing any specified person,” the minutes read.

Kirk said she thought that part of the reason for including Lee was to position the University within the context of the South. She noted, however, that it is hard to say this definitively without seeing any direct orders from the Duke family or University officials to include Lee’s image.

What’s next?

Whatever the reasons for including the statue, Kirk said she has not seen any pushback since against Lee’s presence on campus.

“I teach a class related to these issues, human rights and memory, and I talk about this when I teach my class,” she said. “I have not had a single time where a student has known what I’m talking about. I was talking to someone who had been here 20 years as a faculty member, no idea. I am not aware of any moment where this has become an issue.”

At certain points in Duke's history, based on the national and local dialogue at the time, students and alumni have sought to remove Lee's statue, said Luke Powery, dean of the Chapel. In light of recent events, he noted that he thinks the Duke community would be open to having what he calls a "communal discernment process" to consider the statue's place on campus.

Regarding the debate about whether symbols of the Confederacy should be removed from prominent locations, Powery explained that he can understand the points made by both sides. He said he is less worried about statues depicting people and more concerned about the systems of inequality that they represent.

"The removal of statues and considering it is important, but at the same time, let's talk about reforming those systems and structures," he said.

Kirk suggested that the University invest in creating landmarks to honor other aspects of Duke’s history, including perhaps monuments to the first black students to graduate from Duke, the Vigil or Student Action with Farmworkers.

She said the dedication of Abele Quad last year, in honor of the black West Campus Architect Julian Abele, was a step in the right direction. Abele was also the chief designer of the Chapel.

“It’s the absence that’s also really important,” she said. “It’s not just the presence [of monuments like that celebrating Lee]. It’s also that there are very few sites and recognitions of African American accomplishments.”