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Stained glass windows memorializing Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall Jackson” (photo courtesy Washington National Cathedral) (click to enlarge)

The flags of all 50 states hang in plain sight over the nave of the Washington National Cathedral, but for decades, two Confederate flags went largely unnoticed. Depicted in two adjacent stained glass windows, the tiny panes will soon be removed after officials learned of their existence last summer following the Charleston church massacre, according to the New York Times. They may have been easy to overlook, but their ousting from one of the country’s most renowned places of worship is a significant gesture in the broader, nationwide movement to rid the United States landscape of racist symbols.

Installed long after the Civil War ended, in 1953, the windows pay tribute to generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, with the flags nearly blending in with the glass tessellations of red, white, and blue. A donor from the North and the Daughters of the Confederacy had provided the funds to realize them, according to Mariann Edgar Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. Plain glass will replace them within a few weeks, with private donors paying for the edits. The Cathedral also intends to host a series of public events to discuss issues of racism and slavery as it moves forward to decide whether the commemorative windows should remain at all.

The Washington National Cathedral (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

“The Lee-Jackson windows call the question of race and the legacy of slavery, and instead of turning away from that question, the Cathedral has decided to lean into it,” Reverand. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, the Cathedral’s Canon Theologian, said in a statement. “Instead of simply taking the windows down and going on with business as usual, the Cathedral recognizes that, for now, they provide an opportunity for us to begin to write a new narrative on race and racial justice at the Cathedral and perhaps for our nation.”

Douglas is one of a five-member task force that conducted a six-month study to consider the windows’ status. The Cathedral chapter made the final decision after reviewing the report, with a unanimous vote to detach the panes. Former Dean of the cathedral Gary Hall had first called for their removal when he and Budde found out the flags were present. Hall, who stepped down from the position last year, often makes headlines for his outspoken, liberal positions on hot-button issues: he pushed for gun-control measures in a 2012 sermon; in 2013 he made the momentous announcement that the cathedral would hold same-sex marriage services.

The public discussions begin on July 17, with a panel titled, “What the White Church Must Do.” The chapter intends to consider the fate of the windows within the next two years.

“The Task Force has provided a roadmap that challenges us to engage the complex history of race in the nation, the church and here at the Cathedral,” Budde said. “Questions regarding the Lee-Jackson windows and the Confederate flag’s place in the Cathedral have led us to an even more important discussion about racial justice and reconciliation, to which the Cathedral leadership is committed.”

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Claire Voon

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...

2 replies on “US National Cathedral to Excommunicate Stained Glass Confederate Flags”

  1. Lee and Jackson may have been on the wrong side of history but history itself suggests that the window might usefully remain as a reminder of America’s bloodiest war. Yes, the flags are offensive to many but in the context of the National Cathedral they also represent tragedy and loss. Crossed with the Union flag, emblem of national unity, the windows also represent reconciliation. Religious wars and intolerance through the ages have destroyed each others’ saints, heroes and monuments–Isis’s destruction of Palmyra is only the most recent instance. Lee and Jackson were hardly saints and certainly not heroes to (many) Americans but in the interest of reminding us that wars seldom have faultless winners–northern “Reconstruction” contributed mightily to the invention of the Jim Crow south–maybe we should let each other’s fraught symbols remain, if only in a religious context where moral conversations are encouraged.

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