Lee Chapel

Lee Chapel has been the site of important moments for campus life at Washington and Lee University.

Washington and Lee University will build a new history museum and continue to use Lee Chapel after a commission recommended more sweeping changes earlier this year, President William Dudley said in a statement released Tuesday.

Dudley appointed the Commission on Institutional History and Community last year to address the university’s history after the visceral national response to 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 and a museum in his former office tells the story of his time as president.

The history commission recommended the university stop holding campus events in Lee Chapel and instead transform the entire building into a museum with a new name. It also suggested creating a new space for events like inductions, orientation and Founders Day celebrations.

Dudley said in his statement that the university will continue to use Lee Chapel and “welcome visitors to Lee’s tomb and memorial statue, while ensuring that university events do not feel as though they take place in a Confederate shrine.”

Dudley said the university is looking for a historian to work with other experts on exactly how to reconcile the differing purposes and visions of Lee Chapel.

This historian will serve as the university’s director of institutional history. Dudley said a national candidate search will begin as soon as a committee can be formed.

The new director also will spearhead the construction of a new museum focused on the university’s history, which was adopted as part of W&L’s strategic plan in May.

“There’s a lot of work and it’s complicated and interconnected,” Dudley said in an interview Wednesday. “We need someone who has primary responsibility to coordinate it and move it forward.”

Part of the director’s job will be to help faculty and students research the school’s history with figures like George Washington and Lee, but also the people who were enslaved on campus.

Robinson Hall, which stands on the university’s iconic Colonnade, was constructed with money raised from selling 73 slaves who had been left to the school in an 1826 bequest. The commission’s report recommended renaming the building, hiring a genealogist to research the descendants of the slaves and creating an educational fund to support their secondary education.

Washington and Lee has had a working group dedicated to studying the history of African-Americans on campus for several years. The new director will determine if any additional staff needs to be hired to complete the work, Dudley said.

The board of trustees will discuss the naming of campus buildings like Robinson Hall at its October meeting. But Dudley said the board agreed that the university, Lee Chapel and Lee House, where all university presidents have lived since 1869, will keep their names.

Lee raised the funds to build the chapel in 1868 as a space for religious services and academic functions, Dudley said. Soon after his death, the chapel became known as the “Shrine of the South.” Lee did not know the building would become his family’s resting place or a Confederate monument.

“Lee almost certainly would have opposed both of these developments,” Dudley wrote in his statement. “His personal modesty would have generated strong resistance to making himself the focal point of the chapel. And he expressly argued against the creation of Civil War memorials, rightly believing they would perpetuate division and impede national reconciliation and prosperity.”

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