The Washington National Cathedral bills itself as a “Spiritual Home for the Nation,” but over the years, many Americans have felt excluded by the cathedral. Why? Because the National Cathedral, which was first commissioned by President George Washington in 1791, features two stained glass windows that memorialize Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
As we have seen throughout the nation, Americans have been pushing back against imagery and monuments that pay tribute to our country’s history of enslaving people of color, especially ones that make heroes of those who fought to preserve slavery during the Civil War. And, now, Washington National Cathedral is moving forward with plans to remove its stained glass images of Lee and Jackson.
In its place, renowned artist Kerry James Marshall will create imagery that is more reflective of a new, more equitable America that many are striving to build. Marshall was awarded a prestigious MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 1997, and his large-scale paintings of the lives of Black Americans landed him on Time’s 100 most influential people list in 2017.
You can see some of Marshall’s work online from the Jack Shainman Gallery.
Poet Elizabeth Alexander has also been asked to contribute an original work to the National Cathedral. Her words will be immortalized on the southern wall of the building.
The highly regarded poet memorably contributed a poem at President Obama’s inauguration ceremony in 2008, “Praise Song for the Day,” which you can read here, and watch below:
Although these commissions were only announced on Sept. 23, plans to remove the cathedral’s Confederate-themed imagery have been in the works for years. In 2015, a task force was formed to discuss the removal of the windows (a conversation that was ignited after the racially motivated mass murder at a Charleston church), and it was determined that the depiction of the two seditionists should be removed.
“We want to be clear that we are not attempting to remove history, but rather are removing two windows from the sacred fabric of the Cathedral that do not reflect our values. We believe these windows can yet have a second life as an effective teaching tool in a place and context yet to be determined,” read a statement from the Lee-Jackson Windows Task Force.
The dean of Washington National Cathedral, Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, agrees, telling the Washington Post:
“Cathedrals are never finished, and it’s a wonderful thing to be able to add beauty and meaning to this place when it’s already full of so much beauty and meaning,” Hollerith said. “We are excited to have these two artists with us and grateful for their willingness to undertake this project.”
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