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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics


My university’s website includes the timeline “African Americans at Washington and Lee.” The 1826 entry begins:

“Jockey” John Robinson dies and leaves his entire estate to Washington College. An Irish immigrant who had himself been an indentured servant, Robinson had amassed a considerable fortune as a horse trader, whiskey distiller, and plantation owner. He lived on about 1,000 acres of land at Hart’s Bottom, which would become the site of Buena Vista. Proceeds of the bequest, which was nearly as large as George Washington’s gift of canal stock, included “all the negroes of which I may die possessed together with their increase shall be retained, for the purposes of labour, upon the above Lands (Hart’s Bottom) for the space of fifty years after my decease.”

A trustee’s letter lists “between 70 & 80 negroes worth at a very low estimate forty thousand dollars.”  A lawyer advised selling the land and enslaved people, despite Robinson’s explicit directions not. So in 1836:

“the Washington College trustees conclude “a sale of negroes to Samuel Garland” of Lynchburg, Virginia, Garland co-owned a plantation in Hinds County, Mississippi, and indicated that he planned to send the slaves there. In addition to the approximately 55 enslaved people it sold to Garland, the college also sells five other slaves to individuals in Lexington and Rockbridge County and retains six men and one woman.”

Robinson isn’t mentioned again in the timeline until 2016 when:

“the University formally introduced a historical marker, “A Difficult, Yet Undeniable, History,” recognizing the enslaved men and women owned by Washington College in the 19th century. The marker is located in a memorial garden between Robinson and Tucker halls. It includes the two lists of those men and women who were bequeathed to the college by John Robinson.”

The timeline has not been updated to include the creation of the Commission on the Institutional History and Community in August 2017, the release of the Commission’s Report last May, or our president’s official response to it last week. One of the Commission’s thirty-one recommendations was:

“Re-name Robinson Hall immediately. The hall’s association with slavery at Washington College – i.e., that the Robinson bequest included enslaved persons who labored at the institution until the institution sold them to others – gives special urgency to this proposal.”

The president did not respond to this recommendation. He only responded to the Commission’s recommendation to rename and repurpose Lee Chapel as a museum no longer used as a gathering place for school events. Even as he rejected it, he acknowledged its rationale:

“Others experience [Lee Chapel] as an exaltation of the Confederacy that divides us by making some members of our community feel unwelcome… Those concerned about the symbolism of the chapel object that the recumbent statue and the portrait of Lee in uniform make it difficult to participate fully in the life of W&L without also feeling that one is worshipping at a shrine of the Confederate South.”

Instead of converting the chapel to “a teaching museum in which no other university activities would occur,” our school will hire a new a Director of Institutional History, whose duties will include “making it clear that university assemblies, which would continue to take place in the chapel, have nothing to do with venerating the Confederacy.” I presume this new administrator will also be in charge of eventually responding to all of the other recommendations, including those of special urgency.

When the president responded to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville last year by creating a committee to study the issues for an academic year, I tried to be optimistic. As he told the Washington Post last October: “I haven’t put any constraints on what the commission can think about, talk about, or recommend.” He also said: “People are all very eager to take action, and to know what action is going to be taken. I think the most important action is to spend some time learning and thinking.” I suspect that comment was in part a sub-tweet at my department. As the Washington Post article explains:

A month after torch-bearing white supremacists marched at the University of Virginia, some members of the English department at Washington and Lee took their own stand. “This community has profited by slavery,” they wrote online. “We are complicit in its harms.”

The college, they wrote, “is named after two slaveholding generals with powerful legacies. . . . If it were ever right to celebrate the contributions of Robert E. Lee as an educator, that time is past. Lee’s primary association, to many Americans and across the world, is with white supremacy.”

That prompted heated backlash.

The release of the Commission’s Report has prompted even more. Outraged alums have been threatening to cut off donations. One of the more eloquent wrote:

“As I suppose is the case with most of our alumni, I strongly oppose the most radical of the recommendations:  the renaming and repurposing of Lee Chapel.  I believe such a move would be a grave error, one that may do irreparable damage to the university, dramatically altering its future, and one which may have potentially devastating financial consequences as current and future donors reassess their willingness to support an institution that has sacrificed its traditions and history in favor of political expediency and moral signaling.”

Others have been less eloquent. Members of the Virginia Flaggers commented on their Facebook page:

“Leave the chapel alone! That committee needs to be disbanded for trying to have it removed”

“Remove comitee fanatics comunists”

They also applauded the president’s decision:

“Thank you, Mr. Dudley!”

“Gonads still exist.”

“God answered my prayers.”

“It shall ALWAYS be a CONFEDERATE SHRINE. All that General Lee honored with his service is hallowed ground.”

Our president has also consistently stated that his top priority is to increase student and faculty diversity. According to collegefactual. com:

Washington and Lee University is ranked #2,235 [out of 2,718] in ethnic diversity nationwide with a student body composition that is below the national average.

82% of students are white, and 85% of faculty are white. It would seem that having the name of the leading Confederate general in your institution’s name and his tomb at the metaphorical if not geographic heart of your campus isn’t an attraction for nonwhites. Perhaps worse, it likely is an attraction for individuals who agree with or at least are willing to overlook the racial ideology of the Confederacy.

Creating a commission to study problems and recommend solutions and then rejecting that commission’s most prominent recommendation while putting off discussion of all of its other recommendations–what kinds of prospective students and faculty members will those actions attract? What kinds will they repel?

We’ll have to wait to see how the “African Americans at Washington and Lee” timeline continues.

Meanwhile, I made the six-panel comic “My Colonnade” over a year ago. Like most comics, it doesn’t suffer from subtlety. It features a cartoon (meaning a highly simplified rendering) of W&L’s historic colonnade constructed over and incrementally obscuring an excerpt from a 1836 document describing the deaths of two of the enslaved people bequeathed to the college. Robinson Hall is on the right. My office window is behind the pillars on the left.

I had hoped that a year after Charlottesville this comic would be too dated to post here.

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