An Open Letter to the Incoming Class of W&L
Dear Class of 2025,
Welcome to Washington & Lee University, home of the Generals. Yes, that is an ode to Robert E. Lee. You will soon learn that almost everything here is. I stand here before you, a little over a week removed from the “Walkout to Change the Name” demonstration—where a similar group of students, now joined here by faculty, protested against the Board of Trustees’ prolonged INdecision-making process regarding removing Lee from the school’s name—and up until this very moment, we have heard nothing yet from the Board. Once again, it appears that our cries have fallen on deaf ears. It is not enough that the school has traumatized us and left us withering in fear of Confederate sympathizers as we walk across campus, from class to class and from dorm to D-Hall, on any day in Lexington. Since that hasn’t been enough to get their attention, maybe speaking directly to you will: Everyone who has spoken and everything that has been said has been for you. Truth be told, it’s becoming less and less about us. With the exception of the professors, most of the students here who have spoken have one foot out of the door. We are all either rising juniors, seniors or soon to be alumni. Now, this is not to say that our experience at W&L is a foregone conclusion or that we do not have hope that things can quickly turn around – because no matter how much they will try to tell you that these things take time, know that they are purposely dragging their feet.
Rather, our impact in this moment will really be measured by whether or not the new class of students at W&L are subject to the same, unjust conditions that we are. W&L will be a better place if students who do not fit the mold aren’t constantly considering transferring, if girls who do not get into their top-choice sororities aren’t suicidal, if trans students aren’t kicked out of parties, if theme housing on campus isn’t riddled with bedbugs and faulty ceilings, if Black students and faculty aren’t constantly subject to the free Black labor that I am currently performing, and so much more. We want to save you from the gaslighting that comes with being a student here devoid of privilege, questioning the systems that render you voiceless. We want you to have classmates who do not call themselves allies while actively participating in systems that oppress you. We want you to not have to protest and beg for your school to reach the same conclusions that other institutions have come to long ago. You see, W&L has been stuck in the same place for so long that they have conditioned themselves to believe that remaining complicit in the face of racism is the new civility. You do not have to get stuck in that same web of deceit. If anyone tells you that all of this is just about the name of the school, look them in their eyes and tell them that that’s a bold-faced lie. Behind me lies Lee Chapel, under Lee Chapel, lies Lee’s bones. Beneath my feet, in the very soil of this grass, lies the blood of enslaved African people and their descendants. The name of this school goes so hand in hand with its systemic racism, that if you are not careful, it will slowly begin to convince you that it does not exist. It spills into the students who elect to come to this school, the traditions they choose to uphold, and the spaces that they will exclude you from.
If you have any intentions of surviving or dare, I say – thriving– here, come prepared to fight.
You will have to apply pressure from the second that you step on campus. Email administrators, questions those ‘no’s, and demand that the board acknowledges your voice. We held two protests within one semester? You may have to hold one every week. If the Board does not change the name of the school and all of the conjoined elements of structural racism, every subsequent class after you will have to continue this work. It will be you writing this letter to the Class of 2026, them writing a letter to the Class of 2027 and so forth. As much as it is not your job, nor your duty, you will have to make it clear to the school that you will not be silenced until every Black, brown, queer, disabled, poor, neurodivergent, international, Muslim and more, students have the same experience here as their rich, white and privileged peers. More than equality, you deserve equity. At a school that claims to be a bastion of higher education, you should accept nothing less. Until W&L delivers on its promise to foster an environment that is welcoming for all, keep making noise.