Duke Chapel Statue Provides an Opportunity to Reconcile Our Past

Guest post by Monty Reichert | Theo Pilkington Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Pratt School of Engineering

The entrance portal of Duke Chapel featured carved stone statues of Girolamo Savonarola, Martin Luther, John Wycliffe, Thomas Jefferson, Robert E. Lee, Sidney Lanier, and John Wesley.  Two of these men were icons of Western religious traditions, one was a southern statesman, and one was a venerated southern soldier.  Most everybody can pick these out from the list. And maybe you can pick out the poet.  But quick! … who were Savonarola and Wycliffe?  No Googling now!  The truth of the matter is that hardly anybody knows who these two were.

Regardless, none of these seven had ever set foot on the Duke campus, much less the chapel ensconced with their likenesses.  If, miraculously, their statues had become animated on June 2, 1935 then they certainly would have been given a front row seat at the dedication ceremony of the Duke Chapel; however, this would not have been the case for Julian Abele even though he was living in June of 1935.

As virtually all of Duke University knows by now, Julian Abele was the African-American chief architect of Duke’s West Campus, including the Duke Chapel that sits on the south end of what we now know as Abele Quad. Let there be no doubt that the dedication of this quad was the right and proper things to do, albeit well after the fact.

General R.E. Lee was removed recently by President Price following vandalization of his face with what looks like a hammer.  And now there are six.  This creates a great opportunity to place in the Duke Chapel the likeness of the man who drew up the plans for the cathedral.

Let us as a community build a groundswell of support for placing a statue of Julian Abele in the entrance portal of Duke Chapel.

Placing a statue of Julian Abele at Duke Chapel would not only reflect the level of importance of he had on creating the beauty of our institution but could also catalyze conversations we need to have about the voices and contributions of people of color.

The Commission on Memory and History has issued a call for thoughts and suggestions regarding the vacant space in the portal. If you agree that Julian Abele would be a fitting replacement, or if you have another candidate in mind, then let your feelings be known.

Let us use Lee’s vacated spot as an opportunity to begin to reconcile our past, effect our present, and guide our shared future.