Washington and Lee University has hired its first director of institutional history to build a new museum and explore the private university’s 270-year history, including its antebellum ties to slavery.
The university named Lynn Rainville, former dean of Sweet Briar College, to the position after a national search by a seven-member committee of faculty and staff. Rainville will start July 1.
President William Dudley called for this new position in August when he responded to recommendations from the Commission on Institutional History and Community.
Dudley appointed the commission to address the university’s history after the national response to August 2017 events in Charlottesville, when white nationalists protested plans to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from a city park.
Lee served as the president of Washington College soon after surrendering his Confederate army at Appomattox in 1865 until his death on campus in 1870, when his name was added to the institution’s. A central building to campus life is Lee Chapel, where the general and his family are buried. A museum in his former office tells the story of Lee’s time as president.
The history commission recommended sweeping changes and the university has implemented some of them, including renaming Robinson Hall, which honored a former slave owner. Many of the commission’s other recommendations focused on educational initiatives like requiring students to learn about the college’s history and providing educational materials to the public.
In August, Dudley said these educational changes required a central leader. He tasked the new director with creating a university museum to explore the college’s history through time and include the perspectives of Lee and the enslaved people who lived and worked on campus.
Rainville said she first came to Virginia in 2001 and started researching historic slave cemeteries, including one at Sweet Briar, which used to be a plantation. Rainville studied that burial ground and others like it, and it eventually turned into a 15-year project.
Rainville has published books on African American cemeteries, Virginia history during World War I and on the enslaved people who helped transform Sweet Briar in Amherst County from a plantation to a college.
She said the job at Washington and Lee encapsulated what she had been working on for the last few decades at Sweet Briar, but presented new opportunities because of the nearly three centuries of history at the college.
“To me, that’s the perfect laboratory to get students engaged in history and for them to understand the cycles of history and how they’re relevant today,” she said.
The first step will be to read, listen and research, Rainville said. There are experts well-versed in the college’s history and she plans to bring all of them together to help her efforts on the new museum.
She said she isn’t intimidated to take on the new role despite controversy over some of Washington and Lee’s recent changes. Community members and alumni have publicly said they didn’t support the name changes or other recommendations in the commission’s report.
Rainville said many colleges are starting to confront their history and she hopes to help Washington and Lee explore both the good and bad of its story.
“Washington and Lee, because of some of its historical themes, is the perfect example of why history shouldn’t be considered a dead subject,” she said. “It’s still relevant for all of us.”