Durham County

Don’t look now, Duke University has a Robert E. Lee statue too

At UNC Chapel Hill, the Confederate memorial Silent Sam is so front-and-center on McCorkle Place it’s impossible to miss.

Duke University has a Confederate memorial too, and in a prominent spot, but people still pass by it every day without realizing it’s there.

Now, in the wake of events in Charlottesville and downtown Durham, a Duke Divinity School alumnus thinks it’s high time for campus officials to deal with the fact a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee adorns the entrance to Duke Chapel.

“It’s on a church, and that’s what bothers me,” said Richard Bryant, a 1999 Duke Divinity master’s program grad who’s now pastor of Ocracoke United Methodist Church. “Racist iconography has no place in a Christian church.”

“As a Methodist pastor, someone who went to the school, as someone who stood in the pulpit this Sunday and took a stand against racism, it’s disheartening,” he added. “It seems they ought to be making some sort of statement.”

The statue of Lee is one of 10 that ring the portal of the cathedral’s main entrance, and has stood there as long as there’s been a Duke Chapel. And while Duke has long held the statues are symbolic and not meant to represent real people, the image of Lee is unmistakably that of the Confederacy’s top general, down to the three-star insignia he sported as of 1864.

Most of the other statues around the portal are of leading Protestant religious figures, for example Martin Luther and John Wesley. Lee’s presence breaks from that pattern, as do the adjoining images of Thomas Jefferson and poet Sidney Lanier.

“But one of these things is not like the others,” said Bryant, who wrote about the issue in May and wants Duke leaders to begin planning to remove or disavow the general’s statute. “Lee is the one that stands out. Then you walk inside and it’s a church church.”

However, if Duke officials have any inkling that they might one day do as Bryant wishes, they’re far from ready to say so.

“Our approach to matters such as this should be to engage in an open, thoughtful and deliberative discussion across the entire Duke community, consistent with our mission as an educational institution,” said Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations.

The university is not quite a year removed from honoring the architect of the chapel and the campus, Julian Abele, by naming its main quad for him. The move answered student and alumni pressure to recognize the African-American who did much of the actual design work for the Philadelphia firm of Horace Trumbauer.

It’s said that neither Abele nor Trumbauer had much to do with choosing the statues. Duke lore credits that to the contractor that built the chapel, John Donnelly, with Trumbauer supposedly telling the builders they were “on their own” in picking the images.

Donnelly wound up asking advice from a Vanderbilt University professor whose name is lost to history, “and carved the statues accordingly,” Schoenfeld said.

The statues appear to stand on pedestals, rather than having been carved into the actual stone portal.

Being a private institution and owner of its campus, Duke isn’t bound by the 2015 state law that forbids UNC-CH and Durham County from removing an “object of remembrance located on public property.”

The law is commonly read to prohibit UNC from taking down Silent Sam, and would have prevented Durham County commissioners from voting to take down the Confederate memorial outside the old downtown courthouse that’s now the headquarters of county government. Protesters tore down the county monument Monday evening.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg