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President's statement on Claudius Lee

By President Paul Torgersen

Spectrum Volume 20 Issue 22 - February 26, 1998

Most of us are aware of the discovery last fall of an old yearbook containing cruel and offensive material that was apparently developed by Claudius Lee, or to which he contributed in his student days, many years before a building on campus was named for him. Some of that material referred to the Ku Klux Klan. Following that discovery, I asked Dr. Peter Wallenstein to lead an historical review of the material in question, and also to provide information about the context of that time here at VPI and in the commonwealth.
While awaiting Dr. Wallenstein's final response, I also visited Richmond and consulted with Mr. John Kneebone, of the State Library of Virginia, who is a specialist in the history of the Ku Klux Klan.
At this point, I want to acknowledge with gratitude the assistance of Mr. Kneebone and the effort of Dr. Wallenstein and his committee members, Dr. Joyce Williams-Green and Mr. Michael Herndon, whose hard work on a difficult assignment has helped me to put this issue in a larger historical context.
Part of this larger context includes the fact that the Klan was first active immediately following the Civil War. That post-Civil War Klan had been formed to keep Northern Republicans from organizing the African American vote during Reconstruction. There was no known Klan activity in Virginia during Claudius Lee's days as a student. In fact, the Klan had been dormant during the two-and-a-half decades preceding the yearbook's publication. A second wave of Klan activity, even more terrorist and destructive than the earlier version, began more than a decade after the offensive material was published.
Dr. Wallenstein and Mr. Kneebone both observe that while it is fruitless for us to speculate today on motivations for the development of the pages in question, it is highly unlikely that they represented real Klan activity or even genuine student organizations. We do know from older alumni recollections that it was not uncommon for students at that time to add "phantom" organizations to the yearbooks. While most of them were humorous inventions, the pages referring to racist organizations are in fact sickening to anyone who sees them.
Our dilemma today is how to weigh the reprehensible judgement of an undergraduate over a hundred years ago against the long and meritorious professional life that followed those years.
As Dr. Wallenstein's committee observes, "Institutions, like individuals and entire societies--have pasts. And their history cuts two ways--some of it we may wish to memorialize and celebrate, and some of it we find inconvenient, even offensive."
The report also observes that "a name change might offer a quick fix, but it does not change the past or the present."
Virginia Tech's past includes the fact that for reasons that were believed worthy at the time, a previous administration and Board of Visitors saw fit to recognize Claudius Lee's later years of significant contributions to this university by naming a building for him. I will not recommend now that we alter that decision. I do not believe that institutions can reconcile regrettable aspects of our histories by trying to change the record left to us by the past.
What we can do, and will do, is take responsibility for stewardship in our own time. With the help of our new vice president, we will begin to identify ways to increase our African American enrollment and hiring, to improve our campus climate for minorities, and to acknowledge the presence and the contributions of African Americans who have participated in opening Virginia Tech to minority students and faculty. In that context, appropriate recognition should be provided for Virginia Tech's African American pioneers, whose enrollment at an all-white institution in the early-to-mid 1950s required great courage.
I think I can speak for our whole campus in saying that this incident from Virginia Tech's past has taught us a great deal about taking care in our own time to create a record of which later generations of Hokies can be proud. I invite each citizen of our university to join me in creating a future that will make that pride possible.