Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s presence among six statues adorning the entrance to Duke Chapel may have commanded all the attention up to now, but a Duke University task force says it’s time to consider replacing the other five too.
The advice, which Duke’s Commission on Memory and History acknowledged went beyond its charge, appears at the end of the report it gave university President Vince Price about what to do with the space the Lee statue occupied until its removal in August.
The panel, Price and Duke trustees all agreed Duke should take a year to decide what to do with the vacancy, but a lot of people the commission talked to want to replace Lee with a civil-rights icon such as Martin Luther King Jr. or Durham’s Pauli Murray.
Duke now has to plan the follow-up work on Lee’s spot, an effort that commission member and Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations Michael Schoenfeld said should “take shape very early in the new year” under Price’s direction.
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It’s less clear what will happen with what Schoenfeld called the panel’s “observation” about the other five statues. They depict 15th-century Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, Reformation leader Martin Luther, English theologian John Wycliffe, former U.S. President Thomas Jefferson and Southern poet Sidney Lanier.
For now, it remains “something the president and the university leadership will review,” Schoenfeld said.
Price ordered the removal of the Lee statue amid the nationwide protests erupted after a clash over another of the Confederate army leader in Charlottesville, Virginia, left one protester dead.
The events in Virginia had immediate repercussions in Durham, where protesters pulled down a Confederate memorial outside the county office building on East Main Street. The Lee statue at Duke Chapel was vandalized a few days later, with someone using a hammer or other tool to knock off bits of Lee’s face. Price ordered its overnight removal that weekend.
While there’s been no similar protest, incident or complaint about the other five statues, the committee suggested that officials consider replacing them because of a quirk of their history, namely that they were placed there toward the end of the chapel’s construction “without any guidance from the Duke community.”
As far as university chroniclers can tell, the display at the portal wasn’t something chapel architect Julian Abele specified in any detail in the blueprints for the building.
A longer term, deliberative, inclusive process may lead us to see this moment as an opportunity to select a group of individuals for the chapel portal who truly reflect this university and to honor those as yet unrecognized who have had an impact on making Duke what it is today.
Duke Commission on Memory and History
Stone carver John Donnelly, who didn’t get guidance from Abele’s boss, architect Horace Trumbauer, wound up turning to a professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville – peer and competitor to Duke – for advice on what images might be appropriate to adorn the entrance to a Methodist chapel.
The six statues, three to each side of the doors, were the result.
Joining them elsewhere on the entry are images of four prominent Methodists, denomination founder John Wesley among them, whose continued presence isn’t in question.
With one statue in line for replacement, it would be “a missed opportunity” if university leaders didn’t think about the other five, the commission said in its final report to Price.
“A longer term, deliberative, inclusive process may lead us to see this moment as an opportunity to select a group of individuals for the chapel portal who truly reflect this university and to honor those as yet unrecognized who have had an impact on making Duke what it is today,” it said.
It also said the remaining five statues “include depictions of some individuals who may not be aligned with the mission and highest values of this university,” without elaborating.
Elsewhere in the report, the panel endorsed a Duke-developed procedure for handling future requests that the university reconsider a building name or memorial.
Crucially, it makes the secretary to the campus trustees, rather than Duke’s president, the initial gatekeeper and screener of such requests. If the secretary – currently Richard Riddell, a theater-studies expert who’s been at Duke since 1992 – decides it has merit, it’ll go to the president.
The choice to make the secretary “the entry point for the process” came because he or she “works very closely with the president and the Board of Trustees,” and matters like building names “are within the purview of both the president and the Board of Trustees,” Schoenfeld said.
Commission members, campus officials and trustees agreed that when it comes to weighing such requests, the university should keep an eye on history and avoid doing anything to “erase” it.
But that implies more that Duke should carefully study and document the history of any naming or memorial before acting more than it does that should simply reject requests to change them. The commission specified that both the “past intent and present effect” of such honors matter, and that campus symbols “should align in totality with Duke’s highest aspirations.”
Ultimately, “we must make statements about who we are, rather than who we were,” the report said.