Virginia Tech is weighing the renaming of its Lee Hall dorm once again.
But the building has nothing to do with Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general whose monument in Richmond Gov. Ralph Northam intends to take down as soon as possible.
Named for Claudius Lee, an 1896 alumnus and a Tech electrical engineering professor, the dorm has faced numerous calls to be renamed ever since history students in the 1990s discovered a yearbook claiming Lee as a campus Ku Klux Klan leader.
Over the years, the university has rejected calls to rename the building, citing historical evidence suggesting the KKK reference was likely more a 19th-century student prank than a reflection of an active campus group.
But after an online petition to rename the hall garnered nearly 10,000 signatures on June 8, President Tim Sands announced Tech would revisit the issue.
“To those who seek to rename Lee Hall, we want you to know that we have heard your concern,” Sands wrote in a message to community members. “While there have been earlier reviews of the naming of Lee Hall, I am asking that we review this issue again.”
The president’s request to the Council on Virginia Tech History about renaming goes beyond the conclusions in the group’s 2018 report commissioned after white supremacist violence in Charlottesville. That report said, “rather than renaming buildings whose namesakes have become controversial, the Council would prefer to acknowledge the full histories of the individuals on historical markers.”
Citing the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, Sands noted how nationwide protests around systemic racism and police brutality have renewed debate locally around how Tech commemorates its past.
“At Virginia Tech, we have an opportunity to construct a microcosm of the society in which we wish to live, free of hate, violence, and racism,” Sands wrote. “During the demonstrations and rallies in support of the Black Lives Matter movement right here in Blacksburg, calls have been renewed by our students, faculty, staff, and alumni to rename Lee Hall, given the building’s association with Claudius Lee, an 1896 alumnus and long-time faculty member.”
An online Tech guide to Lee’s papers says, “Lee’s campus reputation has been somewhat tarnished by information gleaned from the 1896 Bugle. Within the annual’s ‘organizations’ section is a page devoted to the K. K. K., naming Lee as the ‘father of terror.’ Lee is also listed as an ‘arch fiend’ in the Pittsylvania Club, whose logo includes a black man hanging from a tree.”
The guide continues, “No evidence of campus Klan activity has been found, however, and an investigation has concluded that the pages are distasteful jokes perpetrated by young men in a nineteenth-century military school dominated by white males.”
The issue emerged again in 2004 after racist graffiti appeared on the door of the campus chapter of the NAACP. Students held a protest outside Lee Hall, and a subsequent diversity commission called for more context around Lee.
Peter Wallenstein, a history professor and member of the Council on Virginia Tech History, said that never happened.
Wallenstein said only “a truly pathetic paragraph” on a webpage about the dorm appeared, an action he deemed “an inexcusable fraud.”
“It’s time to come back,” Wallenstein said about revisiting the issue. He said the full history shouldn’t be suppressed, which he said is a separate question from renaming.
While only renaming a building may make people feel good, Wallenstein said, “it does absolutely nothing to change the past or the present and it denies traction to the future.”
Jimmy Kaindu, a rising senior from Lexington, Kentucky, started the latest petition last week to rename Lee Hall. By the afternoon of June 9, more than 10,500 people had signed it.
Kaindu lived in Lee Hall as a freshman and recalled reading a dorm newsletter containing an “interesting fact” that Lee was listed in the yearbook as a leader in the campus chapter of the KKK.
“I was like, ‘Wait, this is normal? Everyone knows this?’ ” said Kaindu, a 22-year-old mechanical engineering student. “As a freshman, I didn’t know what I could do. I felt uncomfortable.”
Only this spring did Kaindu discover that he wasn’t alone in his discomfort. In a group chat with fellow Tech members of the National Society of Black Engineers, Lee Hall came up. Several students chimed in saying how uncomfortable they had been living in the dorm.
Kaindu said he was surprised by the level of support for the petition. And he said he was appreciative that the university responded quickly.
“I just hope that something actually happens. Because the last 20 years, this issue has come up eight to 10 times,” he said. “I hope it’s not just to save face and keep us quiet.”
Kaindu said whether the yearbook was a joke, Tech had never fully addressed Lee’s affiliation with the image of a black man being hanged.
“Even if they say there’s not enough evidence, they have to think about the feelings of the minorities and the kids who feel uncomfortable living there,” he said. “You’ve got to think about the students living there now.”