Jan 23, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Activist pushes back on claims he's not kin to Robert E. Lee

Rev. Rob E. Lee stands in a downtown with his clergy clothes on.
Rev. Rob W. Lee. Photo: Courtesy of Lee

Rev. Rob W. Lee, an anti-racism and social justice advocate, and his family are rebuking claims from Confederate Civil War buffs that they aren't distant relatives of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Why it matters: The North Carolina pastor has called for the removal of monuments dedicated to the general he says is his slaveholding ancestor. Confederate apologists have disputed his family connection to the general, and he says he's been bombarded with death threats.

Driving the news: Rob W. Lee provided Axios a nearly 400-page family genealogy report gathered by a hired genealogist that ties him to Lee over multiple generations using a zig-zag of births and family marriages.

  • The report reviewed by Axios concluded that Lee was "a close and multiple cousin of Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary Anna Custis Lee." Mary Anna is the step-great-granddaughter of George Washington.
  • "The Reverend has an additional great-granduncle directly descended from many great-grandparents of Robert E. Lee," the report said.

The intrigue: Rob "Rusty" Lee, 62, the reverend's father, told Axios the genealogy report was consistent with family stories passed down about their connection to Robert E. Lee.

  • "I was just generally aware through from my parents and my grandma ... 'You're loosely related to the general.' It was just something that I believe to be true. I didn't have any particular reason to not believe that it wasn't."
  • Barbara Lee, 83, the reverend's grandmother, told Axios she heard the same stories when she married into the Lee family in the 1950s.

Flashback: Rev. Rob W. Lee made national news in 2017 after he spoke at MTV’s Video Music Awards, where he introduced himself as a relative of Robert E. Lee but praised the Black Lives Matter movement.

In his 2019 memoir, "A Sin by Any Other Name," Lee wrote about coming to terms with his family's link to a man who fought to preserve slavery.

The other side: Almost immediately, members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans began contacting reporters to dispute Rob W. Lee's connection to Robert E. Lee.

What they're saying: "The fact check is based on multiple sources, including our independent examination of the lineage of Robert E. Lee’s brothers and half-brothers to find a possible connection to Rob Lee," Shani George, vice president for communications at The Washington Post, said in a statement.

  • "We also sought numerous opportunities to speak to Rob Lee and his family in order to understand why he described himself as a great-great-great-great nephew of Lee."
  • Rob "Rusty" Lee told Axios he and the rest of the family felt the Washington Post story would be a "hit job," and they refused to engage in a piece that possibly would rely on pressure from Confederate defenders.
  • George said Rob W. Lee's publicist contacted the Post a day before the Axios inquiry about the Tulsa World clarification. The Post corrected its story after the Tulsa World reporter said he couldn't recall Lee specifically mentioning Charles Carter Lee during the interview and the reporter couldn't find his notes.
  • Joe Ryan, a California-based lawyer who posts Civil War YouTube videos and is one of Rev. Rob W. Lee's biggest critics, did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

Don't forget: Rev. Rob W. Lee most recently was a pastor at a Newton, North Carolina, church in which about 85% of the congregation is LGBTQ+. He left in August 2021.

Editor’s note: The Rev. Rob W. Lee left the Newton, North Carolina, church last August. This story corrects a previous version that reported he was still the pastor. This story has also been updated to clarify the timing on The Washington Post correction. The Post said Lee’s publicist contacted the paper a day before the Axios inquiry and started investigating the Tulsa World story then.

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