A nearly life-size statue of Robert E. Lee has been on prominent display at Duke University since 1932. The figure stood on the Chapel steps, situated between sculpted figures of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States, and Sidney Lanier, a poet and Confederate soldier.
In August of 2017, the university removed the statue from display after months of active consultation surrounding the racial climate at Duke. After a year of consideration, last week, the University promised to permanently remove the sculpture from public display.
The proper course of action regarding sites of former and existing Confederate monuments is a contentious, political procedure — decisions must be finalized, removals organized, and decisions on what to erect in their place are deliberated. This process began at Duke approximately one year ago, in the wake of the white supremacist riot “Unite the Right” in Charlottesville, Virginia. The statue of Robert E. Lee on Duke University’s campus, was vandalized. Protesters chipped away at the face of the statue, while alumni made their opinions heard.
According to the Duke Chronicle, the day of the vandalism a group of hundreds of alumni, led by 2014 graduate Adrienne Harreveld, published a letter refusing to donate to the school as long as the figure of Robert E. Lee was displayed on campus.
With the unanimous support of the Board of Trustees, newly instated University President, Vincent E. Price, ordered the statue be removed, which it was on August 19, 2017. In his public statement about the decision, Price wrote the statue would “be preserved so that students can study Duke’s complex past and take part in a more inclusive future.” He also announced the creation of a Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Center, led by Charmaine Royal, associate professor of African and African American studies, biology and community and family medicine.
Administrators deliberated about the empty stand for a year following the removal, in collaboration with student and faculty voices. One year later, on August 16, 2018, President Vincent E. Price published a followup statement announcing the plan for the empty monument: nothing.
The space that once held a shrine to the commander of the Confederate States Army will be left untouched — a reminder of the university’s, and the nation’s, relationship with chattel slavery.
Over the course of the last year, I have also heard from a diverse array of individuals and groups about what the university should do with respect to the now-vacant niche at the entrance to Duke Chapel. There have been many nominations for individuals who should be memorialized by a statue in that space. At the same time, I have heard from a large number of our fellow Duke community members who support extending the Commission’s interim recommendation for a longer, even permanent term: that is, to leave the space vacant. As Dean of Duke Chapel and Reverend Luke Powery suggested almost a year ago, the empty space might 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.”
I have concluded that Dean Powery’s suggestion is the right one, particularly when combined with the placement of a plaque in the foyer of Duke Chapel that explains why the space is empty. It will provide a powerful statement about the past, the present and our values. I informed the Board of Trustees of my decision this summer, and I received their enthusiastic endorsement of this approach.
The space will be left empty to “engage in a process of education and community engagement” as the community considers the implication of the sculpture and its history.
Dr. Mark Anthony Neal, chair of Duke’s department of African & African-American Studies and professor of African and African American studies and English, told Hyperallergic in an email, “From a pedagogical standpoint, the choice of leaving the space open will create an element of curiosity that I think will ultimately be productive to a long-term conversation at Duke about the university’s relationship to the issue of race in the American South.”
Neal adds, “The Department of African & African American Studies at Duke was fortunate to have our colleague historian Thavolia Glymph mount an amazing three-day symposium on monuments and the Confederacy in the South this past spring. Next spring, our department will host a similar three-day symposium that looks at other aspects of race at Duke via the lens of the 50th anniversary of the Allen Building takeover in 1969.”
Vincent E. Price wrote in a public statement that there are additional endeavors underway at the University to understand and educate people about racism on campus:
A year-long Bass Connections team project, “Constructing Memory at Duke,” led by Robin Kirk, co-chair of the Duke Human Rights Center, and involving undergraduate and graduate students, resulted in a stimulating report on campus memorials, “Activating History for Justice at Duke,” in April 2018.
In this coming year, a separate Bass Connections team will bring together faculty, students and staff in Art, Art History and Visual Studies, and the Duke Libraries to lead “Building Duke: The Architectural History of Duke Campus from 1924 to the Present,” a project to explore the conception, design, and construction of the campus that will offer an historical narrative of our physical environment and to explore the desires and visions that have materialized in its making.
The president says the University’s firsts steps will be asking the “President’s Art Advisory Committee to identify a location and an appropriate form to give recognition to those individuals whose labor was the foundation of the wealth that created Duke University and whose hands built our campus.”
He has also asked Executive Vice President Tallman Trask to “identify a location on campus where we can mount rotating exhibits dedicated to the history of Duke.” This “living museum” is intended to recognize the historical memory of the University and learn how to move forward from these slaveholding histories.
Academic institutions across the United States are undergoing an unprecedented examination of their institutional ties to chattel slavery. Colleges like the University of Virginia, Georgetown, and Columbia University are facing their foundations being literally and figuratively built on slave labor.
Facing large, highly publicized white supremacist rallies like “Unite the Right,” the decision to maintain statues memorializing Confederate figures who advocated for slavery, lends even more problematic at Duke and UNC. Amidst public fears of neo-fascism and hyper-conservatism in the United States government, the removal of these statues seems more significant than ever before.