He proved them wrong with a 400-page genealogy report he received in October, but the North Carolina pastor and social justice advocate says the accusations were a distraction from the difficult conversations Americans need to have about history.
“I believe it was an attempt to discredit the hard work I put into removing the statues and monuments to my ancestor,” Lee told CNN last week.
In January, Axios reviewed the genealogy report and interviewed the pastor, his father and his grandmother. The family has consistently disputed claims by Confederate sympathizers that the social justice advocate was not related to the Confederate general. They hired a genealogist to put an end to the false reports.
In 2018, rumors began to spread online that the pastor was lying about his lineage because his beliefs were a contrast to what some say the general represented. The general is seen as a hero and Confederate symbol by apologists, and some say his descendant’s criticism of monuments and statues in his honor must mean he’s not related, according to Lee. Despite his namesake, Rev. Lee has publicly condemned the “sins” of his ancestor and has denounced racism since 2016.
Lee began making several public appearances, saying he was a descendant of Robert E. Lee, including a speech in 2017 at the MTV Video Music Awards. At the awards, Lee made a statement against the violence that occurred at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.
In 2019, he wrote “A Sin by Another Name,” which tells his story of growing up being related to a Confederate general. He’s also been pushing for the removal of Confederate monuments including the Richmond statue of Robert E. Lee, which was removed in September of last year.
About a month ago, the city of Richmond also voted to melt down the statue to create art for the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. Lee supports the decision to melt it down and believes this will lead to new opportunities to showcase history.
“I never thought in my lifetime, I would see Richmond and Charlottesville get rid of their statues,” Rev. Lee told CNN. “They’re idols of white supremacy and symbols of racism and hate. And for me as a Christian, and many other faiths feel this way too, we can’t have idols in our public square. That just doesn’t square right with what we’re trying to do as a community, as a state, a commonwealth or a nation.”
The fight for ‘honest education’
Last July, Lee hired a genealogist to confirm what he always knew: he is a close and multiple cousin of Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee. A recent Washington Post factcheck falsely declared there was no evidence that he was a relative, but it has since been corrected.
Lee says it was frustrating when people didn’t believe him. About two years ago shortly after the MTV speech, Lee said he found gun shell casings outside his house. He immediately became concerned for his life.
“This wasn’t a play for fame or fortune but an attempt to be honest about my lineage and therefore be trustworthy as an activist and public theologian,” he said.
Weeks after proving that he was a descendent of Robert E. Lee, the pastor remains committed to reckoning with history. The controversy over his lineage comes as lawmakers in several states continue to restrict what is being taught about race and American history.
Rev. Lee believes the history of Robert E. Lee should be taught in schools in an “honest” way. He wants the education system to teach his role in the Civil War, but to not make him a man that children should “aspire after.”
Rev. Lee compares this honest education to critical race theory — a concept that seeks to understand and address how inequality and systemic racism is part of American society.
The term has also become politicized by its critics as a threat to the American way of life and a topic of debate — especially across the South and Midwest. In Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin set up a tip line for parents to report teachers that are discussing “divisive subjects.” He also banned critical race theory, which is not taught in the K-12 curriculum — earlier this month. In Florida, a state Senate committee advanced legislation to block public schools and private businesses from making people feel “discomfort” when they’re taught about race.
In a recent survey of more than 48,000 statues, plaques, parks and obelisks across the country, Lee is the sixth-most represented historical figure in the American commemorative landscape, according to the Monument Lab’s National Monuments Audit.
“We can’t have this hole in our armor, simply because we feel that we have to establish it for the past,” Rev. Lee said. “We need to be honest with our past, just as I was trying to be honest with my own reality.”
A personal reckoning
Growing up, a 12-year-old Lee was heavily involved in church and developed a close relationship with his faith formation mentor, Bertha Hamilton, who also happened to be a Black woman. He viewed her as a second grandmother, and she would constantly visit the home.
During one of her visits, she walked into Lee’s room and noticed a symbol that she believed went against the values of the gospel — a Confederate flag.
“She knew I was called, and she believed I was called to the ministry, but she felt because I had a symbol of hatred hanging in my bedroom, there was no way that I would be able to be congruent with the gospel,” Rev. Lee said. “It took strength and courage for a Black woman to square up against a man named Robert Lee and tell him the symbol of his heritage, at the time, was wrong and inappropriate.”
She questioned his character and made Lee realize that being related to Robert E. Lee wasn’t something to take pride in.
But it was a fact that he always felt he had to be proud of. Rev. Lee recalls sitting on his grandmother’s lap as a young boy and being told he and his younger brother were related to the Confederate general. At first, they both admired Gen. Lee. They saw him as a hero.
Once their views began to change, Lee says their parents were open and willing to discuss things.
“That whole mentality of the Lost Cause started to seep into my life,” he said. “It then became a point of retrospection and trying to figure out what is the point of all this? Why are we celebrating this man who enslaved people and fought for the continued enslavement of Black people on this continent?”
Dispelling the myth of the Lost Cause
Ty Seidule is a retired U.S. Army general, professor of history at West Point and the author of “Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause,” which discusses his own personal reckoning with idolizing the Confederate general and the myths of the Lost Cause — the ideology that the cause of the Civil War wasn’t centered on slavery. He says he admires and respects Rev. Lee for challenging those beliefs.
“I fully support his mission and his willingness to engage in tough history. If a person is born with the name Robert Lee, there are a few possible options. Embrace what he stood for, remain silent, or publicly decry the values of Lee publicly,” Seidule told CNN. “Rob has publicly stated that Lee fought for white supremacy. He has disavowed the Lost Cause and worked for truth. I consider Rob a role model.”
Both Seidule and Rev. Lee believe the culture of the South also contributed to their initial thoughts regarding the general.
Growing up in Virginia, Seidule said the word gentlemen only referred to White men. He also said he was consistently surrounded by White political power that included Lee idolatry and Confederate monuments in front of courthouses.
“All of these were to support and defend White political power at the expense of Black people,” he told CNN.
“If we aren’t critical of what we’ve learned we’ll never grow, and if we aren’t uncomfortable by the past, we’re either ignorant or naïve,” Seidule told CNN. “We should feel discomfort as white folk by the pain we have caused, and work to ensure systems of oppression don’t continue into the future.”