West Point, my alma mater, is a source of great personal pride. It always has been, and it always will be. The institution has recently taken several steps worthy of particularly high praise. Just this month, West Point announced that it has for the first time chosen an African-American woman, Simone Askew, to hold the highest-ranking position in the cadet chain of command—First Captain. And last week, the Academy opened a new barracks named after Benjamin O. Davis Jr., who—after being shunned at West Point because of his race in the 1930s—eventually commanded the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II and later became the first African-American general in the U.S. Air Force.
Yet on West Point’s beautiful campus there remains a building that casts a shadow over the institution’s latest commendable decisions. Many of the cadets under Askew’s command will live in a barracks named after Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general who led the fight for a cause that—if it had been successful—would have supported the enslavement of the current First Captain and Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. instead of celebrating their humanity, citizenship, and commitment to patriotic military service.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) have asked the Army to rename Lee Barracks. As a moral and pragmatic matter, the Army should heed their call.
By honoring Lee, the barracks remain tied to a legacy of racism, slavery, and the willingness to assume arms against the United States to defend these heinous practices. While Lee is also known for his strategic and tactical skills on the battlefield, as well as his stint as a pre-Civil War Superintendent of West Point, it remains indisputable that he is most prominently recognized for leading the Confederate Army. As such, Lee Barracks is most naturally construed as an endorsement of Lee in this role. But this is not what West Point stands for. A leadership institution that aims to cultivate respect for others and loyalty to country should not extol a man whose name, image, actions, and legacy represent the opposite of these values.
In addition to the moral principles involved, there are other reasons to rename Lee Barracks. First, such a move will likely support recruitment efforts. West Point, of course, needs to continue attracting America’s best student leaders. What message is West Point sending to prospective African-American cadets—and, for that matter, all young students from an increasingly progressive generation, regardless of racial background—as it quarters them in Lee Barracks during visits or at least sends them past the building on tours? Some of these talented candidates may very well choose instead to accept an ROTC scholarship and attend a civilian university that has taken an unequivocal stance against promoting Confederate figures.
Second, a name change would neither erase history nor preclude the teaching of Robert E. Lee’s military tactics and strategies. Without a doubt, all military and political contours of the Civil War—including Lee’s story—should be taught in history classes. Just as monuments exalting Confederate characters, symbols, and causes can be retained in museums with appropriate context, the history and nuances of Lee and other West Point graduates associated with the Confederacy can be preserved through proper academic instruction in West Point’s classrooms.
Naming a building after a person conveys veneration of that individual and his or her chief causes. This reverence is appropriate for the likes of Benjamin O. Davis Jr., Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Ulysses S. Grant—all figures honored by other barracks at West Point. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson enjoy similar praises on the campus. Although Washington and Jefferson owned slaves—a hypocrisy for which they should be widely exposed and criticized—their main contribution was not armed rebellion against the United States in defense of slavery but rather, as Jon Meacham has explained, devotion “to the American experiment in liberty and self-government.”
The Army must confront the blemish that is Lee Barracks. West Point should not celebrate the Confederate legacy of racism and slavery. Instead, it should cement a forward-looking, inclusive legacy that emphasizes the loyal defense of the United States and the Constitution.
“I think it wiser . . . not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered,” Robert E. Lee himself said after the war in 1869, cautioning against building Confederate memorials. On this point, Lee was right.