National Cathedral replacing Confederate glass with racial justice imagery

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Washington National Cathedral announced Thursday that the new stained glass windows in its main worship space will highlight racial justice in an effort to "tell the truth" about the country's past. The original windows, which featured Confederate imagery, were removed in 2017 following the deadly "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The two former windows, which were located on the southern face of the main worship space, featured Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. They were installed in 1953, and first faced calls for their removal in 2015 after the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The cathedral created a task force, and after the 2017 Charlottesville rally, cathedral officials deconsecrated and permanently removed the Confederate images.

Cathedral Reverend Mariann Edgar Budde said at the time that the windows are "inconsistent" with the cathedral's mission and is a "barrier to our important work on racial justice and racial reconciliation."

The Very Reverend Randolph Marshall Hollerith, dean of the cathedral, said in a press release on Thursday that, for nearly 70 years, the images depicted in the windows "told an incomplete story."

"They celebrated two generals, but they did nothing to address the reality and painful legacy of America's original sin of slavery and racism. They represented a false narrative of what America once was and left out the painful truth of our history," he said in a press release. "We're excited to share a new and more complete story, to tell the truth about our past and to lift up who we aspire to be as a nation."

A stained-glass window honoring Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in the American Civil War, installed at the Washington Cathedral is seen June 29, 2015 in Washington, DC.  / Credit: Alex Wong / Getty Images
A stained-glass window honoring Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in the American Civil War, installed at the Washington Cathedral is seen June 29, 2015 in Washington, DC. / Credit: Alex Wong / Getty Images

The new windows will be created by artist Kerry James Marshall, who has been called "one of the leading contemporary artists of his time," according to the Jack Shainman Gallery. His work often depicts portraits of Black subjects that "challenge and recontextualize" themes in which Black people have been omitted. He was named to Time's list of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2017.

The windows are expected to be permanently installed in 2023.

The National Cathedral serves as an iconic U.S. landmark and the setting for several major political events. Its foundation stone was placed in 1907 by former President Theodore Roosevelt, has been the site of state funerals for three U.S. presidents, and was the site of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s final Sunday sermon. Of its many windows is one dedicated to the country's journey to space — with a 7.18-gram piece of moon rock donated by the crew of Apollo 11.

In a press release, Marshall said that the windows will "capture both darkness and light, both the pain of yesterday and the promise of tomorrow, as well as the quiet and exemplary dignity of the African American struggle for justice and equality and the indelible and progressive impact it has had on American society."

This will be the first time Marshall has ever worked with stained glass as a medium.

"This project is not just a job – I don't need the work – or only a piece of art. It's kind of a calling, and a real honor to be asked," he said. "The themes that the Cathedral committee articulated set a great challenge for me as an artist and as a Black American man. The goal is to make truly meaningful additions to an already rich and magnificent institution, to make the changes they have embraced truly worth the effort."

Stone tablets that once "venerated the lives" of Confederate soldiers at the cathedral will also be replaced, a press release said. In their place will be a new poem inscribed in stone tablets written by Elizabeth Alexander, a Pulitzer-finalist author and poet who composed and delivered her piece, "Praise Song for the Day" at former President Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009.

Alexander said in a statement that the project is "inspiring."

"I grew up in Washington, D.C., and spent time throughout my childhood in the hallowed cathedral," she said. "I am incredibly honored to be a part of the National Cathedral's effort to ensure that those who worship within its sanctuary know that it is truly a space for all people, and that the stories relayed through its sacred walls, windows and other iconography represent the truth of our nation."

The former window of the Robert E. Lee will be put on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture for a year, beginning Friday. After its display, it will be kept at the cathedral.

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