To the editor:
The campaign to change the name of Lee Street ignores a great deal of history. As a long-time resident of South Lee Street, I think it is important that this history be understood.
Lee Street was not named for Robert E. Lee but for the Lee family. Harry “Lighthorse” Lee, for example, earned his fame during the American Revolution as a commander of a cavalry and light infantry brigade. After the war, he emerged as a leading Federalist who helped secure adoption of the U.S. Constitution. He served as the ninth governor of Virginia and also served as a member of the U.S. Congress.
His son, Robert E. Lee, was a complex figure. He personally opposed slavery, yet fought for secession. In the book “April 1865: The Month That Saved America,” Jay Winik, a senior scholar at the University of Maryland, points out that when Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, he directly disobeyed an order from Jefferson Davis to fight on. Lee set a precedent of American military officers rejecting illegal orders.
Winik writes: “Appomattox was not preordained … it was largely due to two men who rose to the occasion, to Grant’s and Lee’s respective actions: one general magnanimous in victory, the other gracious and equally dignified in defeat, the two of them fervently interested in beginning the process to bind up the wounds of the last four years. … Above all, this surrender defied millenniums of tradition in which rebellions typically ended in a greater shedding of blood.”
After the Civil War, Lee became president of Washington College. He opposed the construction of monuments to the Confederacy and did his best to unite the country. It is for this and other reasons that the trustees of Washington and Lee University resisted pressure to change the name of their institution.
The name of Lee Street is not in any way a celebration of the Confederacy or of slavery. The effort to change the name is an example of what the Quaker theologian Elton Trueblood called “the sin of contemporaneity,” finding our ancestors wanting for not holding the values we have at the present time. If we seek to name streets after perfect people, we will find it impossible to find worthy candidates.
A personal note: I remember the days of segregation. During that time, as a student at the College of William and Mary, I was involved in a variety of efforts to challenge it, including participating in sit-ins. Racism of any kind is unacceptable. But turning our backs on our history is equally unacceptable. The name of Lee Street should not be changed, not because members of the Lee family were without faults, but because they were a part of our history, which should be commemorated.
-Allan C. Brownfeld, Alexandria