Reconciliation With the Past

Ted DeLaney had planned to attend Morehouse College, but his mother persuaded him not to accept the scholarship. The situation in Atlanta around civil rights made attendance risky. Ted decided to stay at home in Lexington, VA and took a custodian job at Washington and Lee University. Once Washington and Lee allowed African-American students to attend night classes, he enrolled. Over the years, Ted continued to take classes and at the age of 41, he had enough credits to graduate.

Ted then earned a PhD at William and Mary in four years. He returned to Washington and Lee. What he found was a university in conflict. Its alumni held on to its past while current students were critical of its racial history. Dr. DeLaney became an advocate for making the college more accepting of changes in society. He helped start an African-American studies program and led the effort to introduce courses on slavery, civil rights, and LGBTQ studies.

Dr. DeLaney was one of three faculty appointed to a commission to recommend changes needed at Washington and Lee to deal with its troubled legacy. The commission was only partially successful in getting its recommendations accepted. Dr. DeLaney limited his criticism of the lack of responsiveness. He realized that cultural change doesn’t happen overnight.

Washington and Lee University has also come under fire for keeping Robert E. Lee’s name. Dr. DeLaney was a realist who was concerned that such a change could backfire on the institution where he had devoted 60 years of his life. As a historian, he realized that the time would come for reconciliation with the past, but the time was not now.

As society moves forward, there will be situations from the past which are no longer considered acceptable. Some of these situations will be universally accepted as deplorable and efforts toward atonement widely approved. Other situations, while shameful, may still be embedded in culture or traditions and, as a result, harder to rectify. Over time these cultural and traditional bonds will abate. Dr. DeLaney realized that time was the only deterrent to bringing about the change he believed was necessary. He also realized that premature action could bring about more harm than good.

Just imagine the wisdom of a Dr. DeLaney as our society tries to reconcile itself with its past transgressions? How do we balance the need for reconciliation while preserving the good qualities of culture and tradition which are not in question? Just imagine the patience it takes to keep the long view in focus while preparing for the right time to change? Just imagine what it will take to bring about the necessary change without demonizing the past?

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“In the end, reconciliation is a spiritual process, which requires more than just a legal framework. It has to happen in the hearts and minds of people.” – Nelson Mandela

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