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Confederate flags at Southern university removed amid protests

Washington and Lee University has removed Confederate flags that were displayed in a campus building, amid protests.
Washington and Lee University
The Lee Chapel (building on right) at the Washington And Lee University campus in Lexington, Va.

Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., has removed Confederate flags that were displayed in a campus building, amid protest from a group of black law students who said the flags were offensive.

The flags — which are replicas of original Confederate battle flags flown by the General Robert E. Lee, the school’s partial namesake — will be removed from Lee Chapel, a multi-purpose campus space. Instead, the university will receive one or more of the original flags on loan from the American Civil War Museum for display in the Lee Chapel Museum, which has a rotating display of Civil War artifacts.

The president of the university announced the decision in a letter to the community dated Tuesday, several months after The Washington Post reported that a group of students were urging the administration to make a change. Black students make up just 3.5% of the total student population at Washington and Lee.

President Kenneth Ruscio also apologized for the school's direct role in slavery and promised to better honor the slaves' contributions to the its history. "In 1826, Washington College came into possession of between 70 and 80 enslaved people from the estate of 'Jockey' John Robinson," he said in a statement. "Until 1852, the institution benefited from their enslaved labor and, in some cases, from their sale."

The decision to remove the replica flags was unexpected, given that the school has long celebrated its history and stewardship under Lee, who ran the university for five years directly after the Civil War and is buried in a crypt below Lee Chapel. The school is also named for the first president of the nation, George Washington, who endowed the school with a $20,000 gift.

Despite agreeing to take down the flags, the university defended the reasoning behind the display, arguing that it was subject to individual interpretation. 

“The purpose of historic flags in a university setting is to educate,” Ruscio wrote. "They are not to be displayed for decoration, which would diminish their significance, or for glorification, or to make a statement about past conflicts. The reproductions are not genuinely historic; nor are they displayed with any information or background about what they are. The absence of such explanation allows those who either 'oppose' or 'support' them to assert their own subjective and frequently incorrect interpretations."

A spokesman for the university pointed msnbc towards the president's original statement, declining to comment further.

"Consistent with our position since the small group of students made its demands public back in April, the university isn't issuing news releases or giving interviews," spokesman Brian Eckert wrote. "The university’s leadership has said from the beginning that broad issues of campus climate can be most productively discussed within the campus community, not through the news media or a public debate."