MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
For the past 60 years or so at the Washington National Cathedral here in Washington, you could have spotted two stained-glass windows - windows honoring two Confederate generals, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. This week on Tuesday, the cathedral decided to remove those windows. One of the people behind that decision was dean of the cathedral, the Very Rev. Randy Hollerith. He told me this summer's violence in Charlottesville was very much a factor.
RANDY HOLLERITH: We've been having conversations about these windows for two years now. And back in 2015, the then-dean of the cathedral, Gary Hall, following the shootings in Charleston, called for the removal of the windows. And as a result of that, the cathedral put together a task force to begin to look at not only the windows when they were installed - what they mean - but to take a year or more to do the harder work to look at, what are the issues of the legacy of slavery, race in this country, racism? And we had hoped. And many of us had thought that, perhaps, we could contextualize them in place. But, ultimately, we felt that the meanings of these monuments are changing around the country. And they were becoming a barrier to our ultimate work.
KELLY: Was this a unanimous vote?
HOLLERITH: It was overwhelmingly in favor of removing the windows. It was not completely unanimous.
KELLY: I wonder whether one argument for keeping them in place might have been, it's a teachable moment.
HOLLERITH: I couldn't agree with you more. And that's how we've spent the last year and a half - is doing education and opportunities around those windows and, as I said, the deeper issues that they point to. But, also, the windows are not leaving the cathedral. They're coming out of the nave. And it is my - very much my hope that we will have them in a space where they can become a tool for education and further conversation.
KELLY: How are you explaining this to students who are coming through, to the many tourists who are coming through, to your parishioners?
HOLLERITH: You know, we're explaining it in very much the ways I've been sharing with you - that we we understand that there are people who have many different points of view on these monuments, whether windows or otherwise. And we try to honor those points of view and listen to people as best we can - but to really explain that to be a house of prayer for all people, we felt it was very important that we not have windows that are becoming a barrier to many.
KELLY: Is this the only time that a historical monument has been removed from the cathedral as times and viewpoints changed?
HOLLERITH: This is the only time that that has happened for these sorts of reasons.
KELLY: But that's interesting. Of all of the historical figures that could be honored and memorialized in the cathedral - that these are the two that have ended up sparking a controversy in all these decades.
HOLLERITH: Well, it's true. And there's - of course, there's no lack of conversation about all kinds of folks who are in the cathedral - and have the iconography that's there. You know, people talk about the fact that Washington and Jefferson and Madison and others are in the cathedral. And people worry about - is this a slippery slope? Are we going to start removing all of the folks from the cathedral for whom they may have had struggles or personal lifestyles or choices that were difficult? And the answer is no.
You know, when you look at - Washington was a slave owner - and Jefferson - were slave owners. And, of course, that's a tragic reality about their two lives. But they were building a system of government. And although they were incomplete as human beings, they built the system that ultimately allowed us to end slavery and continues to inspire us to move forward and create even more freedoms for one another. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.