By Grace Mamon
The Virginia Military Institute Board of Visitors voted Thursday to move the statue of Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson from its central location in front of the campus barracks.
It is unclear where the statue will go. Both storage and the New Market battlefield were mentioned as potential locations.
The president of the board, John Boland, said that it was the “general consensus” that moving the statue was the right decision.
Spokesman Col. Bill Wyatt called the decision “a bold and unanimous action to move VMI forward” in a statement Thursday.
There was little discussion among board members. Boland said his only concern was cost.
The move was unexpected, given Boland’s previous comments about the atmosphere at the school, saying “systemic racism does not exist here and a fair and independent review will find that to be true.”
It’s the latest in a flurry of developments following the Post’s Oct. 17 story on racism towards Black cadets at the military college. Indeed, VMI’s superintendent Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III resigned Monday after Gov. Ralph Northam ordered an investigation into the school’s culture.
Previously, in defending the Jackson statue near the barracks, The Post quoted Gen. Peay as crediting the Confederate officer with being a “military genius” and “staunch Christian.”
The board today also unanimously voted to create a diversity office to focus on issues of gender, race and hiring. The college will also form a naming committee that will make recommendations on other existing statues and building names.
Boland said these actions are “appropriate and good,” and will not have a negative impact on the school’s mission or method of education.
The reports on racism have sparked strong reactions from cadets via a popular app that allows users to chat anonymously with others in their area. Jodel, pronounced “Yodel,” this week is littered with venomous remarks about Blacks and women, according to a Post article Oct. 27.
Some comments were targeted at those who spoke out to the Post about “relentless racism they’d encountered” at VMI.
“I’m sorry but to the cadets [who] reported to the Washington Post you are the reason we are more divided. You decide to be a professional victim and bitch and complain,” one student posted, according to the Post. “Someone is making a racist joke. GET OVER IT. Comedians can make them. Why can’t I.”
One post accused William Bunton, a Black senior who shared his story in the original Oct. 17 article, of “lying to the Washington Post.”
But other Jodel users felt that Ian Shapira, the Post reporter, did not represent the school accurately.
“Ian, come to VMI, talk to cadets,” one user posted Oct. 27. “As a reporter, do you not feel it is your duty to understand the whole story? No one here condones racism. Listen to all of us and do what’s actually right, not what’s going to get you views.”
A sophomore cadet, who wished to remain anonymous, agrees.
“There are racist kids here. There are racist kids at every school in the country,” he said. “But the 1% of racist kids that are at this school are suppressed by the 99% who aren’t racist. I just think that the article that got posted fails to represent the 99% of us.”
But Jonathan Gray, a junior track athlete who is Black, said he is happy the Post is shedding light on these issues.
“There are probably a couple dramatizations [in the articles],” Gray said. “But I think the general tone of them is accurate.”
Both cadets were surprised at the timing of Peay’s resignation, which came before the investigation even started. Peay had been superintendent at the military college since 2003.
His resignation came after Northam’s chief of staff told him the governor had “lost confidence” in his leadership, the Post reported.
“[The investigation] hasn’t even started or concluded yet, and [Northam] has already called for his resignation,” the sophomore cadet said. “[Peay] was a great man, great superintendent, great military leader and overall a really great person.”
During his tenure, Peay, 80, has celebrated Jackson and maintained that there is no structural racism at VMI.
But there have been many reported accounts of racist episodes at the Lexington college, most recently those that surfaced in the Post article Oct. 17.
The article included stories from a Black cadet who “filed a complaint against a White adjunct professor who reminisced about her father’s Ku Klux Klan membership last year in the middle of class,” according to the Post. And in 2018, a White sophomore told a Black freshman that “he would ‘lynch’ his body and use his ‘dead corpse as a punching bag.’” The White student was suspended but not expelled, the Post reported.
Gray said he has had class with this professor, and “she said the n-word blatantly five or six times in class.”
“Black cadets at VMI have long faced repeated instances of racism on campus,” Northam wrote in a letter to school’s Board of Visitors. “This culture is unacceptable for any Virginia institution in the 21st century, especially one funded by taxpayers.”
The sophomore cadet said he thought the investigation was hypocritical because Northam was involved in a blackface scandal that surfaced toward the beginning of his term.
“Virginians expect all universities—and particularly public universities established by the General Assembly—to be welcoming and inclusive, and to eschew outdated traditions that glamorize a history rooted in rebellion against the United States,” Northam’s letter said.
VMI received $19 million in state funds in fiscal 2020, according to the Post.
Northam, a 1981 graduate of VMI, signed the letter along with other Virginia officials including Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D), Attorney General Mark Herring (D) and several state legislators.
The Board of Visitors is composed of 16 members, including 12 alumni. Members are appointed by the governor and subject to confirmation by the Virginia General Assembly, according to the VMI website. Members serve 4-year terms but are eligible for reappointment.
Boland, in an Oct. 20 response letter, denied that VMI fosters racism. “I am confident that the reviewers will find that the Institute has acted according to the values that we aim to instill in our cadets – with honor, integrity, respect, and civility,” he wrote.
“Virtually all colleges in the 50 states can point to inappropriate behavior by their students or faculty members. VMI is not immune.”
Boland noted that some of the incidents that the Post documented were several years old. He said that they “had more to do with an individual’s lapse of judgment than they do with the culture of the Institute.”
About 8% of the 1,700 cadets at VMI are Black. According to the Post, “many are athletes who said they weren’t fully aware of the school’s history or racial climate when they accepted scholarships.”
Both Gray and the sophomore cadet are athletes and refuted this claim, saying that most sports teams allow prospective students to stay overnight with current cadets.
“Our track coach was open. He told us a lot of what to expect,” Gray said. “But he doesn’t know everything.”
VMI cadets fought for the South during the Civil War. It was the last public college in Virginia to integrate in 1968. It was also the last military college to go coed, admitting women for the first time in 1996.
Wyatt, VMI spokesperson, echoed Boland’s statements welcoming the review.
“[We] do not intend to conduct our own [investigation] since we have already done so at the time the incidents reported by the Post came to our attention,” Wyatt said in an email. “We will cooperate fully with the review.”
Wyatt did not respond to questions about whether VMI was hiring attorneys to represent the school.
Boland “regretfully” accepted Peay’s resignation in a letter on Monday, saying that the retired general has “profoundly changed our school for the better.”
Brig. General Robert Moreschi, who was the deputy superintendent for academics and dean of faculty, will be the acting superintendent, according to the school’s website.
At the meeting Thursday, the board also created a search committee to decide on a permanent replacement. The committee has no timeline.