A day before Duke University administrators decided to remove the Robert E. Lee statue from the portal of its historic chapel, I observed two men wearing the drab woolen hats and pants of Confederate soldiers’ uniforms standing before the Confederate general. Each had on a T-shirt, and one had the Rebel flag emblazoned on the back.
It was unmistakable from a short distance. The “boys in Gray” had shown up to my workplace.
My reaction was visceral. For the first time in my adult life, I questioned my existence in proximity to them because of the color of my skin.
As someone born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, seeing Confederate war memorials throughout the South was a reminder of how white Southern culture chose to remind itself of its past. I remember as a kid learning that the state of Virginia combined the celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday with Robert E. Lee’s as well as Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s for a Lee-Jackson-King holiday. It was off-putting to the sensibilities of my upbringing.
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My job at Duke Chapel is to be a minister to underrepresented students on campus. My position – the C. Eric Lincoln Minister for Student Engagement – is named for an African American who was a professor of religion and culture at Duke, and many of the students I interact with are African American and part of the African diaspora.
Yet in an era of Black Lives Matter, I still had to – until recently – pass a statue of Robert E. Lee to get to my office.
For many white Southerners, seeing a Confederate statue in the town square in front of the county courthouse is a fixture in a disassociated city landscape, a passing tribute to ancestors who fought valiantly in a war. However, for many African Americans, seeing the same statue is a reminder that our ancestors were unfairly tried in those courtrooms and lynched from the trees in those town squares.
Duke made the right decision in removing the Robert E. Lee statue from its place of prominence in the portal to a place of worship and where the “town and gown” have met for close to a century. Now we will have to begin the task of having the hard conversations about what it means to have statues as physical icons glorifying the darker parts of our country’s history.
In his 1996 book, “Coming Through the Fire,” Dr. Lincoln wrote there is a need for a “recognition that we are all of a kind, with the same vulnerabilities, the same possibilities.” Dr. Lincoln, I believe, is calling for the recognition of black human life, perhaps an intellectual predecessor to Black Lives Matter.
Duke has had a history of African-American intellectuals in addition to Dr. Lincoln, such as John Hope Franklin and Samuel DuBois Cook. This history will help me, along with Luke Powery, the dean of the chapel, to tell the complex narrative of why Robert E. Lee along with others were preserved on the entrance to a university chapel in the first place.
While I will be able to tell Duke students the story of how an icon was torn down, there are still dozens of these statues across the South. As a country, we must find the collective will to leave a better legacy to future generations, a future where I won’t be forced to question my existence based on my skin color. We must focus on the possibilities of the future, not glorifying the vulnerabilities of the past.
The Rev. Joshua L. Lazard is the C. Eric Lincoln Minister for Student Engagement at Duke Chapel.