Our Opinion: Duke evicts Robert E. Lee and ignores its namesake’s past

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A statue of Robert E. Lee probably won’t be the last historical monument to be unceremoniously removed from its perch at Duke University.

Duke President Vincent Price named 16 people to the newly formed Commission on Memory and History Sept. 1 after Lee’s vandalized visage was hauled away from Duke Chapel on Aug. 19. The panel will recommend “principles related to campus memorials and the naming of campus facilities,” according to Duke Today, the university news service website.

Translation: As Confederate statues continue to serve as a rallying cry for rioters, this blue-ribbon panel will choose which historical artifacts to hide from menacing eyes.

The Commission on Sanitizing History — we took some artistic license to render the name more accurate — ought to tread lightly if the prestigious private college wishes to avoid doubling down on hypocrisy.

A statue of Duke’s namesake patriarch, industrialist Washington Duke, is seated atop a bronze armchair on a stone pedestal in East Campus.

Before building his tobacco fortune, Washington Duke was conscripted into the Confederate Navy. Union troops captured him and held in a Richmond, Virginia prison. Duke served in the Civil War’s waning days and didn’t command troops, nor did he achieve Lee’s renown, but he fought under the same flag.

Washington Duke also owned a slave named Caroline from 1855-60 and rented the labor of another enslaved person, according to the Duke Homestead State Historic Site.

Before the war, Duke sold his interest in the family farm to invest in cured tobacco. That proved prescient, as he achieved success as a manufacturer of pipe tobacco and cigarettes, becoming one of the five largest cigarette-makers by 1887. An 1890 merger united the competitors under the American Tobacco Co. banner with one of Duke’s sons, James B. Duke, serving as president.

Washington Duke’s $50,000 endowment was instrumental in relocating Methodist-affiliated Trinity College from rural Randolph County to the city of Durham in 1892. He pitched in another $100,000 four years later.

In 1924, James B. Duke gifted the institution a $40 million endowment, and Trinity College was rechristened Duke University. The elder Duke, who died in 1905, had resisted an earlier overture to name the school in his honor.

Following a public campaign to remove a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, that resulted in violent clashes and a death during an Aug. 12 protest, communities throughout the Southeast have grappled with calls to take down Confederate monuments. A statue in downtown Durham was toppled Aug. 14 and seven people were arrested in the act of vandalism.

The debate over government-owned Confederate statues in public spaces rages on. Private institutions like Duke can choose to mothball their artifacts without the bureaucratic rigmarole — or reflection on whether rewarding vandals’ crime is the right course of action.

If Duke is determined to cleanse all traces of the Confederacy from its Durham campus, it’ll have to disassociate from its benefactors. Doesn’t “Trinity Blue Devils” have a nice ring to it?

That will never happen, of course, given Duke University’s “Southern Ivy” cachet and the value of its internationally known college basketball brand.

We’re willing to bet the statues of Washington Duke and James B. Duke are safe, too. Forty million dollars buys a lot of goodwill.

Judging historical figures who died more than a century ago by today’s standards fails to account for the realities of the time in which they lived. How do we as a society decide who qualifies for harsh scrutiny and whose checkered pasts can be glossed over?

The Commission on Memory and History has a choice: Preserve Duke University’s history, warts and all, or selectively remove statues and rename buildings in an inconsistent and ill-fated effort to please everyone.

Evicting Robert E. Lee from the chapel and giving Washington Duke a permanent pass is rank hypocrisy. Carting off other monuments and renaming campus buildings would only compound the error.