Monument(al) Mistakes

by | September 5, 2017 |

Title image: Baldwin Auditorium, East Campus, Duke University with statue of Benjamin N. Duke

Upon my return to Duke last week for the start of classes, I was reminded how much I’ve always loved East Campus with its Georgian architecture. Maybe it’s because I lived there when I was a Duke student and it was the women’s campus. Since 1995 it’s been the freshman campus. I lived there again from 2006-2011 as Faculty in Residence in Randolph Dormitory.

Take a look at this close-up of the Duke University seal that sits in the center of triangular pediment above the front doors of Baldwin Auditorium:

You need to know that the university motto is Eruditio et Religio ‘Erudition and Religion.’ Now, take another look at the bottom curve of the seal. Yup, it’s written: Eruditio et Edligio. Oops! Chiseling doesn’t come with spellcheck.

So, there it is, a mistake set in stone. It’s benign, doesn’t really bother anyone and so it stays.

Moving to West Campus with its gothic architecture, we come to Duke Chapel.

The chapel has justly been the icon of the university since the cornerstone was laid in 1930.

I can’t tell you how many times I have passed the chapel, walked up to it or into it. All kinds of events, in addition to Sunday services, are held there, and I attend quite a few of them: convocation at the beginning of the Fall Semester; Handel’s Messiah performed every December; the baccalaureate service for graduates in May; inspiring speakers such as Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou; funerals of colleagues. My older son was even married there. So I’m familiar with the place.

However, it wasn’t until after the events in Charlottesville that people took a good look at the statues framing the portal to the chapel. Here’s a view of the left hand side:

And the right hand side:

From left to right the statues are of: Girolamo Savonarola, Martin Luther, John Wycliffe, Thomas Jefferson, Robert E. Lee, Sidney Lanier.

Wait. Back up. Robert E. Lee? What the heck is he doing there? And how could I – or anyone else that I know of – not have known? I certainly couldn’t tell by looking at him. In fact, I’m not sure Thomas Jefferson is terribly recognizable. I actually never thought about them.

The right hand side of the portal now looks like this:

After the August events in Charlottesville, the statue of Robert E. Lee was defaced – which suggests that someone knew he was there – and the university removed it a few days later. It is apparently in storage, while the president and other officials decide what to do with it. I looked into to finding out how R.E.L. came to be included in the six, but ended up with “no one knows who authorized it.”

I don’t use my blog to make political points, but in this instance I feel implicated because I’ve been at Duke for so long. West Campus and the chapel were erected during the Jim Crow era (1877-1950s), when many of the statues that have become so problematic in the past month were put up in southern states, and I’m sorry that Duke University participated in its own way and that I had been ignorant of it.

I’m also sorry the statue was defaced, but I am glad it’s been taken down. I tend to agree with the mayor of Richmond who wants to preserve confederate monuments and provide context for them, because removing them, in his opinion, does not erase the history that put them there. However, I can’t think how to provide appropriate context for Robert E. Lee’s statue in the Duke chapel portal – but perhaps it’s a failure of imagination on my part.

I do easily see the statue in an exhibit in Perkins Library – a library being an ideal setting to provide historical context.

I’ve written about the two Duke campuses before. See

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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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