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September 06, 2011


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Jen Kreder

Really interesting stuff.


Agreed, very interesting. As a W&L alum, I always feel like people assume W&L is - and has always been - a highly conservative, pro-slavery and racist place. Some make this assumption, I think, because of Robert E. Lee's role as president after the Civil War, the addition of his name to the name of the college after his death, his prominent resting place on campus and the reverence with which he is viewed by students and alumni (not for his Civil War role). [For some insight into this reverence, I highly recommend "Lee the Last Years" by Charles Braclen Flood, which sheds considerable light on Lee the highly innovative and forward thinking educator]. So, I sincerely appreciate the portrait of Washington College as being far from a pro-slavery bastion in the years leading up to the Civil War. [Washington College, incidently, graduated its first African-American student, John Chavis, in 1800. Rev. Chavis was, in fact, the first African-American to receive a college education in the United States.]

Alfred Brophy

Thanks for the kind words, Jen and MinkHeel. I think one of the important -- and often neglected stories -- about WC is just how vigorously anti-slavery some of its faculty were. Ruffner is the person everyone knows, but George Dabney, a classics professor, was another. Also, the student literary societies were until well into the 1840s fairly consistently debating the morality of slavery and condemning it. Moreover, Lexington in general as late as the early 1830s elected stridently anti-slavery delegates to the Virginia legislature. There's a lot to the story in the 1820s and 1830s. There's also some pretty interesting work on Liberty Hall (WC's predecessor institution) in the late 18th century, which I haven't thoroughly digested, which points in a couple of different directions -- some suggesting robust anti-slavery attitudes; others not so much. Again

Though my next couple of posts are going to be about intellectual life in Lexington (WC and VMI) in the 1850s, when attitudes were more proslavery. One key issue here is that the turn to proslavery thought was later in Lexington than in many other places -- and it was more moderate at WC than at the vast majority of schools in the south at the time.

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