A more-just story in stone

guest letter

Today is General Robert E. Lee’s birthday, just a day after we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr’s legacy. While King’s most famous memorial was carved from white granite, Lee’s most famous were cast in bronze. In the past three years since the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, many of Lee’s statues and memorials around the South have been removed or, in the case of Richmond’s Monument Avenue, transformed into protest art. The now-empty pedestals scattered across the South that held Lee stand as markers that remember the United States’ long legacy of racial injustice and white supremacy. This is true for the Duke Chapel portico, too, which housed a limestone depiction of the Marble Man for over seven decades, and its one vacant niche.

I serve on Duke Chapel’s National Advisory Board and my first board meeting was coincidentally the one immediately following Lee’s defacement and removal. Then and now, I’ve heard this event described as the Robert E. Lee statue controversy or removal, or maybe the Chapel portico controversy. Both of these phrases are descriptively true, but architecturally imprecise.

Lee was removed not simply from the portico, the walled porch that leads into the Chapel’s narthex, but from the aedicula that held him. The statues in the aediculae that line the portico—that hold the figures of Martin Luther, Sidney Lanier, John Wesley and others—were meant to elevate the best of Protestant Christianity and Southern culture, both central identities to the university’s founders and earliest benefactors. It is fitting, therefore, that a colloquial name for aedicula is tabernacle. In ancient Jewish community life, the Tabernacle held the presence of God. Touch it, and be killed. These figures are, to trade in religious language, sacred figures for Duke University—it’s culture, history, and ideals. These are holy men who deserve(d) honor and praise.

Some may rebuff the assertion that the university holds these figures in such high regard, and to some extent, that is true—the Duke family did not select Robert E. Lee for that center-right pediment, for instance—but since its founding, stone has told the story of what kind of university Duke aspires to be. West Campus evokes the Gothic halls of Princeton and Cambridge while East Campus’s Georgian style evokes Yale and UVA; the crests of other elite universities ornament the Brodhead Center’s facade; the gold Abele Quad plaque was replaced with carved stone;  and though we can’t find written evidence of this, some have said that West Campus’s limestone staircases were worn down to make them look centuries old.

Mystery still shrouds the story of how Duke’s tabernacles came to hold the men that now stand (or previously stood) sentinel around the portico. It wasn’t the decision of Horace Trumbauer or Julian Abele who designed the Chapel and much of West Campus. But fortunately for us today, Trumbauer and Abele left us a gift: they did not reserve their aediculae only for the Chapel’s portico. Indeed, they placed them all over West Campus, ready to hold the rest of Duke’s heroes. There are at least 27 empty aediculae remaining on West Campus (can you find them? There may be more!), ready and waiting to be filled. They are ready to tell a new story about our university and who matters most.

Once you come to see the aediculae for what they are, you cannot unsee them. Eight can be found embedded in the Brodhead Center tower. Another is located on the wall to the right of the Allen Building’s main entrance (you can even see the aedicua in some of Duke Archives’ photos from the 1969 Allen Building  Takeover). Mirror tabernacles can be found on Crowell Quad, at one end, and the Davison Building, on the other.

Duke has not merely an opportunity to tell a wider, more diverse story of its origins, but to tell a story that will guide it into its second century. Imagine with me, for instance, the raising of Isam or Malinda, children enslaved by Braxton Craven, standing as sacred figures in the university’s pantheon, above the building named for their enslaver. Imagine Frank Wall, or the unnamed Black men and women who staffed the segregated West Union, standing no longer in the basement but high above it, with a glorious view of Abele Quad.

What matters most at Duke, particularly on West Campus, gets carved into stone. It gets integrated architecturally into the story that Duke wants to share with the world. To be sure, adding statues atop our Gothic revival campus is but a modest acknowledgment of the debt owed to the Black, Indigenous, and people of color who helped Duke become what it is today. Statues are not enough, but symbols matter, and these monuments can help nudge us in the right direction along, as King called it, the long arc of the moral universe as it bends toward justice.

Jeff Nelson, M. Div 2013

Chair of the Just Space Initiative


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