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Nephew Of Robert E. Lee Grapples With Legacy Of American Race Relations In New Book

: [Editor's note (May 18, 2021): Subsequent to the publishing and airing of this story, the genealogical history of Robert Lee has been questioned. It's unclear whether he is a descendent of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee or of Robert S. Lee, who also fought in the Civil War but was not the famous general. We are reviewing these and will update accordingly.]


In the South, the name Robert E. Lee is everywhere. Schools, parks, streets, entire counties bear the name of the leader of the Confederate Army during the Civil War. More recently, statues in his honor have been at the center of heated debates including in Charlottesville, Va., where the statue was the purported emphasis for the white supremacist rally there in 2017.

My next guest is also a Robert Lee - the Reverend Robert W. Lee. He is the nephew of the famous general many generations removed and grew up with reverence for him. He still has that reverence, but he's also grappling with the meaning of his legacy. And he's urging others, specifically others who share that heritage, to do the same.

He offers his thoughts about all this in a new book, "A Sin By Any Other Name: Reckoning With Racism And The Heritage Of The South." And he's with us now from WFAE in Charlotte, N.C. Reverend Lee, welcome. Thank you so much for talking to us.

ROBERT W LEE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So you talk in the book about the first time that you learned you were related to Robert E. Lee from a picture hanging in your grandmother's house. Do you remember, you know, what that felt like when you heard about this, when you learned this?

LEE: I think in the South, there is a certain reverence, as you said, and a certain awe for the man named Robert E. Lee. Regardless of what you think of him and what he did, he is a staple of Southern culture. And so when I found out that I was related to him, and a close relation at that, it was as if my world had been shaken in the best way possible. It's like told - being told you're related to a celebrity down here.

MARTIN: One of the things about your book that I like is that, you know, what we often as journalists report on history as these big cataclysmic moments, right? But you describe, like, a series of smaller, quieter moments that influenced your thinking. Could you just talk a little bit about how your image of him first became complicated or more nuanced?

LEE: I grew up under the care of a nurse named Janie Bowman (ph) who really cared for me. She was a woman of color. She was someone who was 60, 70 years my senior at the time that I met her. And she would cook me sausage. She would take me for a walk. She would read the Psalms to me.

But she also understood that down here in the south, even in the 1990s when I was a kid, Jim Crow still lived. And so she wouldn't eat after me. She wouldn't use the same utensils or the same glasses that we had at my house because it was Robert Lee's house. You don't do that. That was just her understanding of the Jim Crow South at the time. And I've struggled with that ever since, this reality that I bear a name that has caused such pain not only for people that I love, but for this nation as well.

MARTIN: But you still went to an all-white Christian academy - right? - one of those seg academies that was set up specifically to avoid the court-ordered desegregation of the public school system there, right? Did you ever ask about that? Did you ever wonder, like, why?

LEE: To this day, I still wonder why. And it was an all right school. They were nice to me. But we had lunch catered from outside venues - from fast food joints or from the local Japanese restaurant while our friends over at Statesville Middle School were eating lunches that probably shouldn't have been eaten by anyone.

So this was a dichotomy and a juxtaposition that I still live with to this day. And I hope and pray that this book will give us a chance to reconcile those realities.

MARTIN: In the book, the events in Charlottesville in 2017 were a turning point for you. That's when the - of course, I think most people will remember that these white nationalists were marching through the city. And it purportedly started as a protest against the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. And then of course, the activist young woman Heather Heyer was killed. A number of people were injured.

The fact that reverence for Robert E. Lee allegedly was at the center of that chaos and violence, was that something that was transformative for you?

LEE: It broke my heart. I've had the opportunity to befriend Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer who was killed in Charlottesville. And when my book came out, she said, stay strong. Keep the faith and keep fighting. And that gave me a lot of hope because if she can reconcile with herself the fact that my ancestor's statue caused this problem, then we can work together still. We can still confront racism as we do together with her foundation, the Heather Heyer Foundation. We can do this.

MARTIN: I'm wondering if - I don't think you have kids yet, you and your wife. But if you should have a son, what are you thinking about - Emmett? I don't know. What - Bill? Is Robert still on the table?

LEE: Well, I can tell you - and my wife - first of all, for all of you who are worried, my wife gave me permission to say this - we are not going to name our child Robert Lee if we have a boy. We are going to end it here because for us, the weight of this name is growing as people seek to create a racist reality. People are venerating this name instead of living into it as a sinful past.

So my wife and I have thought about Elliott, which is the middle name of my mentor who preached my ordination service. We've thought about a few different names. But those are some that come to mind. And we just want to have a future filled with hope, not one filled with a past that is deeply broken.

MARTIN: Well, good luck. Keep us posted on all of those developments if you don't mind. All right.

LEE: Yes, ma'am. Thank you.

MARTIN: The Reverend Robert W. Lee. He's the nephew many generations removed of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee. His new book, "A Sin By Any Other Name," is available now. Reverend Lee, thank you so much for talking with us.

LEE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.