Washington and Lee University has a little bit of history

AwardAll too often we ignore the stories and events attached to the places we see on a daily basis. With so much to think about, studying for midterms, scraping together rent, finding a job, it’s easy to overlook that the campus we walk across and the institution we attend often times has a long history full of famous characters.

Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia is one of those great schools that has the stories to really make you stop and thinking about your place in the timeline. If you stand on the walk way next to the lush green grass and look at the stark white two and a half story columns on the buildings, it’s easy to start imagining what students were thinking one or two hundred years ago when they first looked upon the campus.

The school of 1,800 undergraduates and 400 law students came up from humble beginnings just ten minutes away from its current location. Originally founded as Augusta Academy in 1749, the school went through a series of name changes before becoming W&L. The first such change was to Liberty Hall in 1776, for more than obvious reasons. Shortly afterwards it was chartered as Liberty Hall Academy which which not only moved the campus to Lexington but also issued their first bachelor of arts degree in 1785, making the school the ninth oldest university in the nation.

In 1796, the Academy was on the brink of closure when it received the largest endowment to date, $20,000 dollars of James River Canal stock. The equivalent donation of $350,000 dollars came from just one single donor, George Washington. The school immediately became the Washington Academy and later Washington College.

With the donation, the school was able to solve its insolvency and create a fund where the dividends would help cover the cost of student tuition. It also established a permanent location for its campus and began construction on the physical structures that now make up the Colonnade. The Washington Hall of 1824, Payne Hall of 1831, Robinson Hall of 1843, Lee Chapel of 1867 and the President’s House of 1868 are all National Historic Landmarks and make W&L University one of the most beautiful campuses in the county.

The final chapter in the of the naming of the school came shortly after the civil war. General Robert E. Lee, decorated war hero and in-law of the Washington family by marriage, bypassed many intriguing and lucrative offers to reluctantly accept the president position of Washington College. As a firm believer in education, he and later his son, both West Point graduates, established the high academic standards that the college still maintains today.

During his stay, Lee created the Honor System, which establishes students as their own self governing body for rules and regulation, an open speaking forum and established schools in both journalism and law. The latter of which is still a fundamental part of the school.

Robert Lee died in 1870 and his eldest son George Washington Custis Lee, who was a professor at Virginia Military Institute, succeeded his position as president of W&L until 1897. Upon Rober E Lee’s death, the school made its final name change to Washington & Lee University. Both, Robert and Custis Lee, as well as many family members are buried in the Lee Chapel on campus. Even, the school motto Non Incautus Futuri, (Not unmindful of the future) is adapted from the Lee family motto.

Other interesting things to note, Washington & Lee University was said to have enrolled its first black student in 1795, although the second didn’t come along until 1966. In 1972 the school gave their first degree to a black american and the first women was accepted into the W&L law school. Today, one out of every seven students is a non-white minority and the school has more than a 60% female population.