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UVA and the History of Race: The Lost Cause Through Judge Duke’s Eyes

A profile of UVA graduate R.T.W. Duke Jr., who presided over the 1924 dedication of the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville.
Crowd gathered around statue for Stonewall Jackson memorial dedication, Charlottesville, 1921.

Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library/University of Virginia

Why did Charlottesville’s white citizens choose to erect a statue to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in 1924 – nearly 60 years after the Civil War? One clue can be found in the personal papers of Judge R.T.W. Duke Jr., held at the University of Virginia’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.

Duke, who literally presided over the Lee and Jackson monument dedication ceremonies as the designated “chair” of each event, was a fixture at Confederate Memorial Day celebrations and monument dedications all across Virginia in the early 20th century, known for his fiery defense of slavery, and attacks on emancipation and Reconstruction. The record of Duke’s public role as a Confederate memorialist, when read together with his extensive private diaries and memoirs, provides a window into the “Lost Cause” creed – and into the University’s role in promulgating it.

Duke was born in Charlottesville in 1853. His father, R.T.W. Duke Sr. (1822-1898), attended UVA as a student and then served on its Board of Visitors. A successful lawyer, Duke Sr. served during the Civil War as a colonel in the Confederate army, and after the war in the U.S. Congress, where he protested against extending citizenship rights to African Americans.

The younger Duke attended UVA from 1870 to 1874, studying law under John B. Minor and editing the Virginia University Magazine. Duke Jr. then embarked on his own legal career, serving as judge of the Corporation (Circuit) Court and as commonwealth’s attorney for Albemarle County in the early 20th century.1

Duke Jr. was reared on the dogma of the Lost Cause, the pro-Confederate interpretation of Southern history that prevailed among white Southerners in the decades after the Civil War. According to this mythology, slavery was a benign institution; secession was a constitutional defense of state sovereignty; the wartime emancipation of the slaves was a travesty; the Yankee victory in the war was a triumph of might over right; and the postwar experiment in black citizenship a failure, necessitating the “redemption” of the South by former Confederates. The essence of the Lost Cause was that the Civil War was not lost, and could yet be won by new forms of racial proscription and segregation.

Duke’s extensive memoirs are a compendium of Lost Cause talking points. Of slavery, Duke wrote that his own family’s treatment of their slaves “was so kind” and the slaves’ affection for their owners “so sincere” that he “never saw any of the ‘horrors’ of slavery – so called.”

But other passages in Duke’s memoirs contradict such claims of kindness and affection. The Duke household’s “Mammy,” an enslaved woman named Rose, he remembered as so “impatient of control” that she “required firmness in handling.”