By Clay Risen
Ted DeLaney, who began his nearly 60-year career at Washington and Lee University as a custodian, accumulated enough credits to graduate at 41, returned a decade later as a history professor, became the school’s first Black department head and later helped lead its reckoning with the Confederate general its very name honored, Robert E. Lee, died on Dec. 18 at his home in Lexington, Va. He was 77.
His son, Damien DeLaney, said the cause was pancreatic cancer.
Professor DeLaney’s fondness for his alma mater was both wholehearted and complicated. He took pride in his decades of hard work — overcoming obstacles, he often pointed out, that a white academic would never have had to face — and he bristled at suggestions that he was a poster child for the university’s racial liberalization.
In fact, he was a prime mover in driving what was still a very conservative institution forward. As a member of countless faculty committees, he urged the university to recognize its own difficult past — it once owned scores of slaves — and to increase students’ exposure to Black history and culture.
“He was always willing to call out the institution on its failure to live up to its promise,” said Molly Michelmore, the chairwoman of the Washington and Lee history department.
But Professor DeLaney’s primary target was Lee himself, and Lee’s defining role in the university’s identity.
Lee, a slaveowner, resigned from the U.S. Army at the start of the Civil War to fight for the Confederacy. In 1865, just months after surrendering to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, he accepted the job as president of what was then Washington College. When he died, in 1870, the school changed its name to Washington and Lee and had him buried in a crypt on campus; his horse, Traveller, is buried nearby. Generations of freshmen have had to file into Lee Chapel to sign the “honor book” near a recumbent statue of the general.
Professor DeLaney attacked Lee’s legacy with the tools of his profession. A common story about Lee has him kneeling to pray alongside a Black congregant — proof, his defenders say, of his colorblind heart. But Professor DeLaney’s research showed that the incident had almost certainly never happened.
“If it had been written into a history essay, we would have given it an F,” he said in a 2019 conversation with the Rev. Robert W. Lee IV, a descendant of the general.
In 2017, in the wake of the white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, about an hour from Lexington, Washington and Lee created a commission to address the university’s troubled history. Professor DeLaney was one of three faculty members appointed to it, and by many accounts its motive force.
The commission’s report, delivered in May 2018, made a number of recommendations, among them that Lee Chapel be turned into a museum and that the university “discontinue programming at the chapel that celebrates the mythic Lee, particularly events with characters in period costumes and horses that resemble Traveller.”
According to one account, the university rejected 75 percent of the commission’s recommendations, including anything having to do with Lee Chapel. But a Washington and Lee spokeswoman said the university had accepted at least 50 percent of the recommendations and that additional steps were underway.
Respectful of the institution he called home for so many decades, Professor DeLaney muted his criticism — perhaps, his son speculated, because his training as a historian had taught him to take the long view.
“Knowing my dad and the arc of his career, I don’t believe he thought it was over,” Damien DeLaney said.
Theodore Carter DeLaney Jr. was born in Lexington on Oct. 18, 1943. His mother, Theodora (Franklin) DeLaney, was a barber in Lexington. His father was a doorman at a local hotel. His parents divorced when Ted was 11. (His mother later remarried and became Theodora Morgan.)
In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife, Patricia (Scott) DeLaney; three sisters, Carla Cooks, Janet Jones and Theresa Morgan; and two grandchildren. His brother, Charles DeLaney, died in 1992.
Professor DeLaney graduated from high school in 1961 and planned to attend Morehouse College, in Atlanta, on a scholarship. But his mother refused to let him go, fearing that the direct-action tactics of the city’s civil rights movement could spur a violent backlash, with her son caught in the middle.
Instead, he worked a series of jobs around town, including as a butler for a Washington and Lee fraternity. Having converted to Catholicism in high school, he spent seven months as a postulant at a Franciscan monastery in upstate New York, but left after he grew frustrated with the rules.
Returning to Lexington, he got a job as a custodian in the biology department at Washington and Lee in 1963. Within a year he was working as a lab assistant and, once the school allowed Black students, taking night classes. (Today the university has an undergraduate student body of about 2,000.)
By 1981 he had accumulated enough credits to become a full-time student. He and his wife sold their house to pay for his studies. Ms. DeLaney was the city treasurer for Lexington, and Professor DeLaney often brought his infant son to class when day care wasn’t available.
After graduating cum laude in 1985, he taught at a private school for two years before pursuing a doctorate at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va. He didn’t plan to focus his career on Black history; he wrote his dissertation on Julia Gardiner Tyler, the second wife of President John Tyler.
But when he returned to Washington and Lee, he found a university caught between its legacy and its future, between alumni pressure to honor the Lost Cause and a diversifying student body critical of the school’s racist past.
Professor DeLaney pushed the school to add courses on slavery and civil rights, as well as gay and lesbian history and even the history of the university itself. In 2005 he co-founded its African-American studies program, which he later expanded to include African studies. He was chairman of the university’s history department from 2007 to 2013.
He became a fixture on campus, a natty dresser with a soft drawl whose classes counted among the most popular on campus, even though they often indicted the wealthy, white Southern society that produced a majority of his students. But he also suffered under the pressure he felt to play the model minority. When one colleague poked fun at his fancy wardrobe, according to a 2019 profile, he shot back, “I don’t have the white privilege to dress the way you do.”
For all his intellectual activism, Professor DeLaney was also a realist; he knew the limits to what he could achieve on a campus that, even well into the 21st century, remains tradition-bound.
When he joined the university’s post-Charlottesville commission, there was pressure to recommend dropping Lee from its name. But Professor DeLaney demurred, recognizing that such a call from a small group of faculty and students could backfire, and that only widespread, grass roots activism could force real change.
Professor DeLaney retired in 2019, and although he taught a class that fall, he was increasingly occupied with his fight against cancer, and could only watch from the sidelines as the racial tumult over the summer of 2020 brought renewed calls to remove Lee’s name.
In early July, the student government, which plays a large role in the university’s governance, voted overwhelmingly in favor of changing the university’s name; days later the faculty did the same. The board of trustees has formed a committee to consider the idea.
Professor DeLaney, his son said, was pleased.
“The reckoning,” he said, “will go on without him.