The independent news organization of Duke University

Ralf Michaels


The empty space in the Chapel's entryway a year after the Robert E. Lee statue was removed.

Fill the void: On the empty space outside the Chapel

In 2017, President Vince Price made a bold decision. At the height of protests against monuments commemorating the Confederacy, anonymous protesters damaged the sculptural portrayal of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on the exterior of Duke Chapel. Without delay, Price had the statue taken down and promised a debate. The happy result: tensions did not escalate, and Duke demonstrated an institutional awareness of its historical baggage. (Compare that to UNC down the road, where protests against Silent Sam, the Confederate statue on campus, led to no resolution. Monday, the day before classes started, protesters took it down overnight, in a widely reported scene.) Three weeks after Duke’s statue was removed, Price set up a commission which began a long debate on what to do with the newly empty space. In 2018, President Price made a decision that was less brave, unfortunately. In an email last week he decided to follow a recommendation the commission made last December: to leave the space empty. The commission had recommended doing this for a year. President Price now apparently wants the space to remain empty indefinitely. The justification, borrowed from the Dean of the Chapel, is that the empty space may be seen to represent “a hole that is in the heart of the United States of America, and perhaps in our own human hearts—that hole that is from the sin of racism and hatred of any kind.” A plaque will explain this.

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