Washington and Lee University

Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia Friday, June 6, 2008.

ROANOKE — The Washington and Lee University Board of Trustees announced Tuesday the university will rename two campus buildings and make changes to Lee Chapel.

The board changed the name of Robinson Hall to Chavis Hall in honor of John Chavis, the first African-American to receive a college education in the United States. Chavis graduated from Washington and Lee’s predecessor, Washington Academy, in 1799.

The board also changed Lee-Jackson House to Simpson House in honor of Pamela Hemenway Simpson, the first woman to become a tenured professor at the university. She died in 2011 and played a critical role in the university’s transition to coeducation in the mid-1980s, according to an email from the board to Washington and Lee alumni and students.

In Lee Chapel, portraits of Robert E. Lee and George Washington in civilian clothing will replace the portraits of the two men in military uniforms currently hanging in the chapel. Additionally, the doors to the statue chamber will be closed during university events.

Board members met with students and faculty this weekend to gather input on the changes and balanced those with feedback they received from alumni over the past several months.

“We want to express our gratitude to all of those members of the community who contributed to our deliberations, through countless letters and conversations over the summer and on campus this weekend,” the board’s statement read.

Many of these changes are in line with recommendations laid out by the Commission on Institutional History and Community, which President William Dudley appointed in 2017 in response to events in Charlottesville, when white nationalists protested plans to remove a statute of Lee from a city park.

One of the commission’s major areas of focus was Robinson Hall, named for a founder of the university. John Robinson left his estate, a large farm and 73 enslaved men, women and children, to the college. In 1836, the college sold the slaves and used the funds to build Robinson Hall on the campus’ historic Colonnade.

The commission recommended renaming Robinson Hall, expanding recognition of enslaved persons on campus, hiring a genealogist to track down their descendants and potentially establishing an education fund to support their secondary or collegiate educations.

The board of trustees has taken the first step by renaming the building Chavis Hall, but the other recommendations have not yet been considered.

Dudley announced in August the university planned to hire a director of institutional history, who will spearhead some of the initiatives suggested in the commission’s report.

The director would be responsible for determining whether the university should hire a genealogist or use resources already dedicated to studying the history of African Americans on campus.

The new director will also be in charge of the design, construction and operation of a new museum dedicated to the history of Washington and Lee and its connections to American history. The director will also oversee Lee Chapel, which has its own museum.

The commission recommended renaming Lee Chapel, Lee House and Lee-Jackson House. Dudley released a statement last August that both Lee Chapel and Lee House will keep their names.

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