Ian Shapira, Washington Post, October 29, 2020
Virginia Military Institute’s Board of Visitors voted Thursday to remove the prominent statue of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson as pressure builds for the state-supported military school to address allegations of racism.
The board’s unanimous decision follows a Washington Post report this month detailing bigotry at the 181-year-old school in Lexington, which received $19 million in state funds this fiscal year.
After reading descriptions by Black cadets of what they endure, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) ordered an independent investigation into what he and other state officials called “the clear and appalling culture of ongoing structural racism at the Virginia Military Institute.”
VMI’s superintendent, retired Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, resigned Monday in the wake of the controversy. The 80-year-old four-star general, who had run VMI since 2003, had resisted calls to remove the Jackson statue, calling him a “military genius” and “staunch Christian.”
It is unclear where the statue of Jackson — an enslaver of six people who taught at the school before helping to lead the Confederate Army — will go.
The board’s chairman, John “Bill” Boland, suggested it might be transferred to New Market, the Civil War battlefield where VMI cadets fought and died for the slaveholding South. Or it could be carted off to storage, he said.
The board also agreed to create a diversity office at VMI and a diversity and inclusion committee. Of VMI’s 17 board members, three are Black. All the school’s top officials, including the VMI chief of staff, the faculty dean and the inspector general/Title IX coordinator, are White men.
Del. Jennifer Caroll Foy (D-Prince William), one of the first Black women to graduate from VMI in 2003, said it is crucial for the school to fight racism and discrimination in its ranks.
“While VMI has a history rooted in the Confederacy,” said Foy, who is running for governor, “ it must have a future that’s rooted in inclusion and diversity.”
The Jackson statue was erected in 1912. Its presence in front of the barracks has always rankled Black cadets, who make up about 8 percent of VMI’s 1,700 students, as well as some White cadets and alumni. Until a few years ago, students had to salute the statue when they passed it. This year, Black alumni launched a campaign to remove the Jackson statue led by Kaleb Tucker, who was a starting cornerback on VMI’s football team before graduating in May.
Tucker created a Change.org petition, asking the school “to acknowledge the racism and black prejudice that still occurs at VMI” and “to tear down” the Jackson statue.
Another group of alumni, led by Shah Rahman, Conor Powell, Michael Purdy and George “Donnie” Hasseltine, asked the board to form a racially diverse commission of alumni and cadets to re-examine all the school’s traditions, monuments and building names. But Boland rejected their idea, arguing that it was the board’s responsibility.
VMI was the last public college in Virginia to integrate, admitting five Black students in 1968. It took a 1996 Supreme Court decision to end its resistance to admitting women.