Founders Day Remarks: January 22, 2019
—We celebrate Founders Day and gather for Convocation, by direction of the Board of Trustees, on the birthday of Robert E. Lee, who served as our university's president from 1865 to 1870.
On this occasion, we reflect upon the people whose vision, leadership, and hard work gave rise to this university, in which we take pride and to which we now devote our own energy. We reflect upon the purposes and the values that abide as the common thread connecting the members of this community across decades and centuries during which so much else has changed. And we reflect upon our motto — non incautus futuri, not unmindful of the future — which expresses our commitment to honor the past, not from a desire to remain frozen in time, but rather as a source of inspiration to direct our own efforts for the benefit of those who will follow us in the decades and centuries to come.
At the heart of Washington and Lee University lies the conviction that the future is best served by education. From that conviction grows the communal ethos to devote ourselves to cultivating the considerable potential of our students, so that they in turn may contribute powerfully to making the world a better place. The two men for whom our school is named exemplified this ethos in their own words and deeds, as have thousands of other individuals who have sustained the quality, character, and success of this university over the 270 years of its existence.
The chapel in which we are gathered this evening first opened its doors to host commencement in 1868. As the first new building at Washington College after the Civil War, it was likely the first on campus constructed without slave labor. Lee had the chapel built to enhance the spiritual and academic life of the college, and it has been in continuous use for 150 years, hosting services, convocations, lectures, and concerts.
The chapel that Lee conceived was a simple, undecorated space. There were no portraits, statues, or plaques. Lee never imagined the chapel would become his family's mausoleum, or a memorial to the Confederacy, which he urged his contemporaries not to erect.
This is the first Founders Day to be conducted under the gaze of President Lee. For the last 55 years, since 1963, the same two portraits hung on the wall behind me. The one of Lee, which depicts him in his Confederate uniform, was painted by Theodore Pine in 1904, from a photograph taken during the Civil War. The one of Washington, painted in 1772 by Charles Willson Peale, shows him as a young man of 40, serving as a Colonel in the Virginia militia. It is the only portrait of Washington that pre-dates the Revolutionary War.
The paintings you see tonight portray Washington and Lee as they were when they made their direct and transformative contributions to this institution. J. Reid painted Lee in 1866, shortly after he became the president of Washington College. Gilbert Stuart's image of George Washington, which should look familiar because it is on the dollar bill, was painted near the end of his second term as the President of the United States, in 1796. That is the very same year in which he made his generous gift to Liberty Hall Academy.
These portraits remind us not only of the men they depict, and of their integral connections to this university, but also of the importance of our work, and of our commitment to serving the public good. George Washington invested in this particular school because he believed that the success of the nation depended upon there being quality education on the frontier. The Blue Ridge mountains were the frontier, and we were the first institution of higher education to the west of those mountains. George Washington's investment in us was a deliberate investment in the future of the United States. Sixty-nine years later, with the nation in tatters after the Civil War, Robert E. Lee accepted the presidency of Washington College because it offered him a chance to contribute to rebuilding the newly re-United States. Putting this small, struggling college on a path to becoming an outstanding, modern university was Lee's primary contribution to the future of the country.
We continue to serve the public good. Our mission commits us to providing a liberal arts education that prepares our students for lives of responsible leadership, service to others, and engaged citizenship in a global and diverse society. The investments of time, resources, and love that our faculty and staff make in these young people are paid forward by the positive differences that so many of our students — and especially those who are here tonight as initiates of Omicron Delta Kappa, the national leadership honor society — make on our campus and in our community.
The work we are doing with respect to our institutional history reflects this same commitment to advancing our educational mission for the sake of the greater good. We are determined to teach and present our history, and all of its entanglements with the history of America, as well as we possibly can, for the benefit of everyone at W&L and the wider public.
Creating a new museum of institutional history will help us research and tell the many stories of this place. It will also enable us to learn from, and collaborate with, other institutions engaged in the critical work of national self-understanding.
We are already collaborating with Mount Vernon, which has borrowed our Peale portrait in exchange for their Gilbert Stuart. One million people per year will see Colonel Washington in his home, where the portrait originally hung. When our museum is complete, it will house the Peale portrait of Washington and the Pine portrait of Lee, both of which are important artworks that help to tell the full stories of our namesakes. Of course, the museum will also tell the stories of other W&L pioneers, such as John Chavis and Pam Simpson, for whom we have recently named prominent campus buildings.
And we are embarking tonight on what I am confident will be a long and fruitful collaboration with the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, whose CEO, Christy S. Coleman, is our distinguished speaker.
Ms. Coleman grew up in Williamsburg and earned bachelor's and master's degrees from Hampton University. During her college years, she was a living history interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg, where she eventually became the director of African American Interpretations and Presentations. In that role, in 1994, she orchestrated the reenactment of a slave auction and played the role of a slave who was to be sold. The event drew national attention and opened the door for conversations about slavery at other historical sites and museums.
In 1999, Ms. Coleman became president and CEO of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit. She was named president and CEO of the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar in Richmond in 2008. She helped coordinate the merger of the American Civil War Center with the Museum of the Confederacy to create the American Civil War Museum in 2013. In August 2017, ground was broken for a new museum building at the Historic Tredegar site, which is scheduled to open later this year. The American Civil War Museum is the nation's first museum to examine the story of the Civil War from multiple perspectives — Union and Confederate, enslaved and free African Americans, soldiers and civilians.
Ms. Coleman has been recognized for striving to make museum experiences meaningful to diverse communities and being an innovative leader in the history museum field. Last year, Time magazine featured her on its list of "31 People Who Are Changing the South." As the Time article observed, "In the South, few subjects are as thorny as the history and meaning of the Civil War. But as CEO of the American Civil War Museum, Christy Coleman has proved unafraid to wade into the middle of the conversation."
Her courage also served her well as co-chair of Richmond's Monument Avenue Commission, which was charged with investigating what to do with the Confederate statues on the city's landmark boulevard. After a year of deliberations, the commission issued its report in July 2018 and called for the city to remove the monument to Jefferson Davis and to develop a plan to provide broader historical context for the other Confederate statues.
Ms. Coleman's distinctive and impressive professional path demonstrates the value of a liberal arts education. In a 2015 interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, she revealed that she had intended to be a lawyer until "my first summer as a living history interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg showed I could merge my talents — academics, creativity and business interests — into a meaningful career."
Please join me in giving Christy Coleman a warm welcome to Washington and Lee.