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Lee-led college breaks with Confederate past

Washington and Lee University expressed regret Tuesday for the school’s past ownership of slaves and promised to remove Confederate flags from the main chamber of its Lee Chapel after a group of black students protested that the historic Virginia school was unwelcoming to minorities.

President Kenneth Ruscio’s announcement was a surprising move for the small, private liberal arts college in Lexington, Virginia, that has long celebrated its Southern heritage. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was the university’s president after the Civil War, his crypt is beneath the chapel, and the school has gingerly addressed its ties to the Confederacy and its having profited from the possession and sale of slaves.

The Confederate banners – battle flags that Lee’s army flew as it fought Union forces – had adorned the campus chapel that bears Lee’s name since 1930, and university officials said they were a nod to history and not a message intended to offend anyone. Others, however, see the flags as hate symbols representative of slavery, racism and grievous times in the nation’s history.

Founded in 1749, the college was endowed in 1796 with a $20,000 gift from George Washington, the nation’s first president, and was subsequently renamed in his honor. After Lee died in 1870, the school added his name.

Ruscio’s announcement came just a few months after a group of black law students, known as “the committee,” wrote a letter to the school’s board of trustees urging changes that they said would make minority students feel more welcome. Black students make up about 3.5 percent of the school.

The students asked that the school remove the Confederate flags from the chapel.