Ralph Ellison's vision integrated at Va. citadel

Washington and Lee lauds author of change

February 06, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

LEXINGTON, Va. - Confederate ghosts crowd the Robert E. Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University - ghosts of the rebel general, who served as president of the college and is buried in the chapel crypt; of his horse, Traveller, buried outside the chapel door; and of the dozen Washington and Lee students killed on Civil War battlefields.

But a different sort of spirit ruled the chapel last weekend - that of Ralph Ellison, the late author of the 1952 classic Invisible Man. Scholars of African-American literature and political theory had gathered at the college from around the country for a conference marking the 50th anniversary of the book's publication, and kicked off the symposium in the hallowed chapel.

It was an unlikely scene. With a marble statue of Lee and eight large Confederate flags as their backdrop, scholars discussed the novel that, perhaps more than any before it, opened the eyes of white readers to the plight of blacks in a segregated America.

Yet if Lee turned over in his grave, no one noticed.

Instead, those attending agreed, the incongruous setting only underscored the changes in the 50 years since the book's publication - changes in the academic world, where colleges now fight over star black professors such as Harvard's Cornel West, and in the nation, where two black Americans sit on the president's war Cabinet.

They are changes, the scholars added, that fit the vision set forth by Ellison - an ardent integrationist who believed that white America should accept blacks because blacks were an integral part of what made the country great.

"What a wonderful Ellisonian moment, that this celebration took place in, of all places, Lee Chapel," said Alfred Brophy, a University of Alabama School of Law professor in attendance. Ellison "would have loved it."

The symposium was the brainchild of Washington and Lee politics professor Lucas Morel, who is such a fan of Invisible Man that he named his youngest son Ellison. Morel persuaded his department to spend its entire annual lecture budget to attract top scholars from the University of Chicago and University of Pennsylvania to discuss the book, which follows its unnamed narrator on his odyssey from an all-black Southern college to the riotous streets of Harlem.

It wasn't Washington and Lee's first encounter with Ellison - he stopped off briefly at the patrician, colonnaded campus in 1963 on a trip through western Virginia. But it was a different Washington and Lee that hosted the writer's tribute this past weekend.

Once a bastion of white Southern men best known for its honor system, its fraternities and its emphasis on public speaking, the 253-year-old college has been growing increasingly diverse. After much debate, it began admitting women in 1985, and blacks now make up about 3 percent of its 1,760 undergraduates - a major change from just 35 years ago, when there was one black undergraduate at the school.

While the college has met with some resistance from alumni and faculty along the way, acting President Laurent Boetsch said, most realize that the reforms have only improved the school, which now ranks among the top liberal arts colleges in the nation.

"When you've been around as long as we have, it takes a long time to change the public's perception, but everyone now realizes how different we are than we were a very short time ago," Boetsch said.

The college still has a ways to go, students and officials say. Last year, white students representing Idaho in a mock political convention caused an uproar when they wore T-shirts depicting a scantily clad black woman and an off-color wordplay on their state's name.

"Some [black students] just come and leave because they don't feel comfortable," said Marinda Harrell, a sophomore from Hyattsville, Md., and head of the school's Black Female Alliance, who came to the college to get the "exposure" necessary to become an activist.

Despite aggressive efforts, students and administrators say, recruiting black students and faculty continues to be a challenge.

"First of all, you've got `Lee' in the college's name. Second, you're in a town of only 8,000 or so people and not many African-Americans," said Lewis Holloway, an admissions counselor and 2000 graduate who was listening to a bluegrass band at the Southern Inn, a local bar. "But they're definitely trying. It's never not going to be a Southern school, but it can be a more inclusive Southern school."

Holloway's friend Robert Policelli, a Connecticut native, can attest to the school's thick air of tradition. Policelli's campus job is to sit watch at the Lee crypt, a favorite stop for many Confederate war buffs, who can also visit Stonewall Jackson's grave and house in Lexington, and the Virginia Military Institute, which is adjacent to Washington and Lee.

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