What Northam’s Black VMI schoolmates endured 40 years ago: ‘We don’t want you here’

Virginia’s governor has ordered an investigation into racism at his alma mater, but he acknowledges that the bigotry at Virginia Military Institute didn’t register when he was a cadet
Darren McDew, a retired four-star Air Force general, supports the investigation into the Virginia Military Institute: “I never put in my mind that the school could still be grappling in this manner with the things I saw 40 years ago.” (Travis Dove for The Washington Post)

Darren McDew felt the sting of racial slurs as soon as he arrived at the nearly all-White Virginia Military Institute in 1978.

Three of his White classmates, he said, freely slung around the n-word. Same for the racist insults “jigaboo” and “spear chucker.” It got so bad that McDew — a future four-star Air Force general — confronted them and demanded they stop.

“I was shocked at how often they used the terms in my presence,” said McDew, now 60 and one of VMI’s most prominent Black alumni.

McDew became a “rat,” as freshmen at the nation’s oldest state-supported military college are known, just one year after a White cadet named Ralph Northam moved onto the Lexington campus. Northam, a future governor of Virginia, would become another of the college’s most distinguished graduates — and one of its most controversial.

Last fall, in a move that infuriated many VMI students and alumni, Northam (D) ordered an investigation into the school’s racial climate after current and recent Black students described disturbing acts of bigotry to The Washington Post.

The independent probe, which is expected to be finished in June, is largely focused on the experiences of recent Black cadets. But racism is not a new phenomenon at VMI, which was the last public college in Virginia to integrate, in 1968, and didn’t admit women for three more decades.

What did Northam, who arrived at VMI in 1977 and graduated in 1981, witness more than four decades ago?

“I don’t remember seeing racism aimed at Black cadets, but I’m sure it happened,” Northam said in a series of written answers to questions posed by The Post. When he was a cadet, he recalled, he mostly focused on surviving VMI’s academic and military-training challenges. “I didn’t fully understand how subtle [racism] is, how it touches every single aspect of society. … I had the privilege of not having to see it, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.”

In interviews with more than a dozen Black men who attended VMI in the mid-1970s to early 1980s, many said they take great pride in their education there. They consider themselves barrier breakers at a college that has produced more than 200 U.S. generals and admirals of varying ranks, including Gen. George C. Marshall. Some don’t believe the scrutiny of their alma mater is warranted.

But they also described racism that was pervasive and pernicious, manifesting itself in brazen racial slurs and in the subtle sense of being singled out for harsher training or discounted for leadership positions because they were Black.

Some, though not all, felt alienated by VMI’s veneration of the Confederacy and its mandatory traditions honoring cadets who died fighting for the slaveholding South during the Civil War.

Two recounted feeling targeted for expulsion by the college’s student-run Honor Court because of their race.

One Black student in the early 1980s who was charged by the Honor Court with violating the honor code received two notes at his barracks room that a VMI staff member saved and shared with The Post: “Whats better than a Black leaving VMI? One that gets KICKED Out!!! THE CORPS.” And: “Go Home Black BOY!!! The Corps.”

A Black student in the early 1980s was accused of violating the honor code.
He received these racist notes at his barracks room. (Courtesy of former VMI staff member)
LEFT: A Black student in the early 1980s was accused of violating the honor code. RIGHT: He received these racist notes at his barracks room. (Courtesy of former VMI staff member)

Donald Mitchell, a Northam classmate who would go on to become one of the first Black Special Operations helicopter pilots in the Air Force, remembers that within minutes of joining the “ratline” — the grueling, months-long initiation process for freshmen — he heard a White upperclassman shout at him: “N-----, we don’t want you here, and we’re going to do everything we can to get you out.”

Yet Mitchell still wears his Class of 1981 ring, which features, among other symbols, VMI’s statue of Confederate Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, who taught at the school and enslaved six people.

“If the ring was just of Stonewall Jackson, I wouldn’t wear it,” said Mitchell, 61, who lives in South Florida. “But the ring tells people that you persevered and went through something more difficult than what most college kids go through.”

Donald Mitchell still wears his Class of 1981 ring, which bears the image of VMI’s statue of Confederate Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson.
"The ring tells people that you persevered," said Mitchell, who became one of the first Black Special Operations helicopter pilots in the Air Force. (Photos by Donald Mitchell)
LEFT: Donald Mitchell still wears his Class of 1981 ring, which bears the image of VMI’s statue of Confederate Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson. RIGHT: "The ring tells people that you persevered," said Mitchell, who became one of the first Black Special Operations helicopter pilots in the Air Force. (Photos by Donald Mitchell)

When Ron Carter was a senior in 1978, the star basketball player served as the college’s first Black battalion commander. He also protested the playing of “Dixie” and the raising of the Confederate flag during the annual ceremony honoring 10 VMI cadets killed in fighting at the Battle of New Market on May 15, 1864.

“I told the superintendent, ‘I’m a Black man from the North. This is going to be a problem,’ ” Carter recalled.

The ceremony, he said, eventually took place without “Dixie” or the Confederate flag. But he remembers learning that death threats against him had been sent to administrators’ offices. He also recalls, at other points in his VMI career, anonymous notes left on a board outside the commandant’s office: “They’d say despicable things like, ‘N-----, who do you think you are, trying to change traditions?’ ”

Even so, Carter, who played with the Los Angeles Lakers alongside Magic Johnson after graduation, loved his VMI experience. He considers Bill Blair, the White basketball coach who led his sophomore-year team to the Elite Eight, a father figure.

He also thinks Northam had no business calling for an investigation into the college’s culture, given the disclosure in 2019 that his medical school yearbook page included a photo of one person wearing blackface and another dressed in a Ku Klux Klan outfit, and that one of Northam’s nicknames listed on his VMI yearbook page was “Coonman,” a racial slur.

Northam initially said he was in the blackface/KKK photo but didn’t specify which person he was. Then he denied he was in the photo at all. As for “Coonman,” Northam said two people in VMI’s Class of 1980 called him the slur, but he didn’t know their motives and expressed regret.

The governor refused to resign and said he would devote the rest of his four years in office to racial equity.

Since then, Northam, 61, has reappointed one Black member to VMI’s Board of Visitors and added three other African Americans to the 16-member oversight body. Earlier this month, the board chose the first Black superintendent in VMI’s 182-year history: retired Army Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Wins, a 1985 graduate. Northam had called choosing a Black leader “the bare minimum needed to demonstrate VMI’s commitment to equity.”

But he also said that he didn’t have a good sense of his alma mater’s racial climate when he became governor in 2018. Nearly 1,400 VMI cadets marched in his inaugural parade in Richmond.

“I knew the practices of the school were problematic in many ways, but I didn’t realize how bad it still was,” said Northam, who followed his older brother to VMI. When he went there, he said, “I also didn’t understand the real history behind the school’s confederate ties. … I’m not making excuses for myself, but public schools 50 years ago weren’t teaching the truth about these things — why these statues went up when they did, that they were intentionally designed to terrorize and intimidate Black Virginians during the Jim Crow era, that this was about white supremacy and the story of the so-called 'Lost Cause.’ ”

Northam said he grew concerned last summer when alumni launched a campaign to remove the Jackson statue and acknowledge racism at VMI, which received $19.3 million in state funding for fiscal 2021. He called The Post’s revelations in the fall — which included one account of a Black student being threatened with lynching during “Hell Week” and another hearing a professor reminisce about her father’s Klan membership — “very disturbing. Again, I knew the school continued to celebrate its Confederate past, but I had assumed that it had evolved as the rest of the nation had.”

Not all Black alumni agree with Northam. Carter, 64, a former administrator with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said VMI’s current cadets of color have been swayed too much by Black Lives Matter and police brutality protests.

The Jackson statue, which VMI removed in December after years of resistance, should have stayed, he said, but should have been complemented with a tribute to Black Union soldiers.

“My generation just had thicker skin. These young kids today are getting caught in the moment. They take it more personally,” Carter said. “Maybe somewhere things went off the rails with the Honor Court after I left, but don’t go public with this nonsense. VMI didn’t become racist. It was always racist, just like other universities in America. We have accomplished alumni, and we could have handled this internally.”

‘Being targeted’

When Northam arrived at VMI in August 1977, he was one of about 380 freshmen — nearly all of them White. There were just 10 Black freshmen pictured in the 1978 yearbook, and only about two dozen who were sophomores, juniors and seniors. A Black student group called Promaji had just received official recognition from the college the previous academic year, according to the student newspaper.

The governor's entry in the VMI yearbook during his senior year included the nickname "Coonman." (VMI yearbook)

But Confederate flags were often hung in barracks rooms or hoisted during sporting events. And freshmen had to salute the bronze statue of Jackson outside the student barracks — a requirement that continued until just a few years ago.

Dave Montgomery, a Black senior on the basketball team when Northam was a freshman, said he was far less offended by having to salute Jackson than he was by being summoned in 1975 to watch a screening of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation,” which celebrates the KKK.

“Once I saw the people with hoods on, that’s when I got up and left,” said Montgomery, 65, a retired deputy director of public works in Baltimore.

Other Black students in the Northam era were deeply rankled by the Jackson statue.

“I felt like I was on someone’s damn plantation,” said a Black former cadet who ran track in the late 1970s and early 1980s but was expelled on charges that he violated the honor code. “I felt I could hear Stonewall just saying to me, ‘Salute me, n-----.’ "

When he arrived in Lexington in 1979, Aaron Weeks, an African American football player from Jacksonville, Fla., frequently noticed White cadets picking on Black freshmen in more relentless, targeted ways, he said. Once, he recalled, a White cadet confronted him and kept ejecting spittle onto his face while ordering him to do push-ups. He refused and was written up for disobeying orders.

“They were trying to do things to make you lose your composure. Was this part of a military school seeing if you can handle stress — or part of their racism?” said Weeks, 59, a budget manager for the Miami-Dade Public Works Department in Florida, who transferred to Florida A&M the next semester. “Inside your head, you see how many of your Black peers are getting picked on. You keep a tally. And we knew Blacks were receiving more of it.”

In 1980, the Black cadet recruited to run track at VMI was arrested by the student-run Honor Court for allegedly cheating on an exam. He was convicted and expelled.

“I was being targeted because of my race,” said the former cadet, now 60, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he remains traumatized by the experience. “I did not cheat. During my arrest, I was flabbergasted. I just didn’t know what to do and had no idea why I was being arrested. I just felt so much shame in me. The stigma that this still has on me is paralyzing.”

Aaron Bush, who was a year ahead of Northam, was the only Black student on the prestigious Honor Court at the time, serving alongside the future governor. Now a retired Army colonel and middle school math teacher in Pennsylvania, Bush said he didn’t recall the details of the case well, but didn’t believe the Honor Court was disproportionately targeting fellow Black cadets for expulsion.

Northam, who served as the president of the Honor Court his senior year, also said he didn’t recall the Black cadet’s case, but expressed concern about “the ongoing disparities” of the honor system. In December, The Post reported that for the three academic years between the fall of 2017 and the spring of 2020, VMI expelled Black students for honor code violations at a disproportionately high rate.

Every Black alum reached by The Post who knew Northam at VMI said they were shocked by the revelations about his yearbooks.

“He never gave me attitude when I was a rat,” said Garland Boone, a Black alumni from Crown Heights, N.Y., who graduated in 1983. “When I asked him a question, there was no sarcasm or condescending behavior, just straightforward niceness. Was he good with Black people? Absolutely.”

Northam was especially close to Robert “Bobby” Savage, a classmate and football player who was also from Virginia’s Eastern Shore, and who died in 2013. The two played basketball against each other in high school. Northam and his father would drive Savage home from VMI for school breaks, according to Savage’s sister, Sheila Savage West.

“We were friends then and up until his death,” Northam said. “I feel lucky I was able to go to school with him.”

Northam salutes VMI cadets during his inaugural ceremonies in Richmond in 2018. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

A Black quarterback expelled

At the end of McDew’s freshman year in 1979, he and a White classmate were eligible to become a corporal for the following year. McDew who would become one of just 21 Black people in U.S. military history to achieve the rank of four-star general or admiraldidn’t get the promotion. But the White cadet did. A White upperclassmen pulled them both into his room after the news broke.

“He turned to the White student and said, ‘Congratulations, I knew you’d do it.’ To me, he said, ‘Don’t feel badly, there are just some people who aren’t made out to be leaders and have rank here,’ ” recalled McDew, who retired from the Air Force in 2018. “I didn’t necessarily think I was more deserving. But I thought the upperclassman’s comments were demeaning. It wasn’t the first or last time I heard that statement. There was some bias involved — it’s a hidden bias. He said that to me because he hadn’t seen a lot of Black students holding rank.”

During his sophomore year, McDew made corporal. His junior year, he became a sergeant and helped lead the color guard.

“ ‘Colored sergeant’ — the White cadets would say that to my face. You’d just roll your eyes. You gotta pick your battles,” McDew said. White students who resorted to racial slurs, he said, “had gone through a segregated life, and some of them were high academic achievers, and that achievement path was segregated. And they may not have run across someone like me who was their academic equal.”

Later in his junior year, a White staff member in the school’s Air Force detachment approached him.

“He asked, ‘If you can be any position other than regimental commander [the highest-ranking cadet], what would it be? Because I don’t think you’d be a good regimental commander,’ ” McDew recalled him saying.

McDew suggested he could be a company commander, among other positions. But afterward, he wondered why he’d settled for something less. “I said to myself, ‘Why not me for regimental commander? Why would he say that?’ ”

In April 1981, the front page of the student newspaper delivered the news: McDew was named VMI’s first Black regimental commander. He would also serve his final year as the lone Black student on the Honor Court.

Frank Brown III was expelled after being accused of cheating on a thermodynamics assignment, a charge he denies to this day. He earned degrees from three other schools and is an engineer. (Parker Michels-Boyce for The Washington Post)

That fall, the Honor Court prosecuted a Black student, Frank Brown III, a junior and one of the football team’s best players. In an interview, Brown said he’d been charged with cheating on a thermodynamics homework assignment. During his Honor Court trial, Brown said, his professor testified that Brown’s answer was original and different from anyone else’s in class.

So, Brown said, the Honor Court found another way to convict him. Evidence in the trial also showed that right before Brown and other students turned in their homework, another cadet had clarified to him what one of the questions was asking.

So, Brown said, the Honor Court busted him for not writing down “help received,” as is required whenever VMI students turn in graded assignments.

“I didn’t consider that help because it was just a general conversation as we were walking into class,” Brown said of his friend’s clarification. “I solved the problem on my own.”

Brown was already having a rough year. He said that he’d been primed to become VMI’s first Black starting quarterback but that a White transfer student replaced him right before the season began. When the Honor Court found him guilty, his expulsion made a local newspaper’s sports section.

Brown had been set to take the starting quarterback job at VMI, but a White transfer student got the spot. Later, he learned a White teammate took the cheating accusation to the Honor Court. (Parker Michels-Boyce for The Washington Post)

Later that year, during Thanksgiving break, Brown said, he learned that a White football teammate had turned him in on the cheating charge. “I found out he didn’t like Black people,” Brown said. “What came to my mind was that they were kicking me out because they didn’t want a Black starting quarterback. It had to be because of my skin color.”

The next year, Brown said, he ran into McDew, who told him that he and another Honor Court officer believed he was innocent.

“He said something like ‘They were ready to get rid of you’ and that my case was unfair,” Brown said.

McDew said he didn’t recall that conversation or the details of Brown’s prosecution.

Brown, now a 59-year-old engineer, wound up with degrees from three colleges, including one in mathematics in applied physics and engineering.

“I’m glad they’re looking into VMI now,” Brown said. “Discrimination was evident when I was there. But when I saw that Blacks are still getting discriminated against, I thought, ‘Damn, things haven’t changed in 40 years.’ I’m glad that it’s being exposed.”

Brown is glad the school is being investigated: "Discrimination was evident when I was there. ... I’m glad that it’s being exposed.” (Parker Michels-Boyce for The Washington Post)

McDew, whose name has often surfaced as a possible VMI superintendent, feels much the same way.

“I’ve been saddened by what I’ve read about VMI,” he said, “but I am not surprised. No organization is immune from these problems.”

Some VMI alumni may resent Northam for ordering the probe, but McDew isn’t among them. He supports the investigation.

“I made an assumption, like many graduates who leave their institutions, that things were slowly progressing and that things couldn’t get worse,” McDew said. “I never put in my mind that the school could still be grappling in this manner with the things I saw 40 years ago. In hindsight, that’s a bit naive, because the country is dealing with all of these isms.”

McDew still wears his Class of 1982 ring that he and his classmates designed. Even this token carries its own fraught history: Several classmates, McDew said, wanted it engraved with the Confederate flag. He said no.

“That’s not what represents us,” McDew remembers telling them.

But the ring’s final design does include an image of the Jackson statue and the words: “You may be whatever you resolve to be.” The maxim, memorized by VMI students and alumni, is mounted in bronze in the student barracks — and attributed to Jackson, even though he didn’t author the phrase.

“The sentiment behind the quote helped shape us," McDew said.

And at VMI, he always had to pick his battles.

McDew's Class of 1982 ring. (Travis Dove for The Washington Post)

Read more:

VMI cadets attack Black students, women on anonymous chat app as furor over racism grows

A Black VMI cadet was threatened with a lynching, then with expulsion

Two families — one Black, one White — shared a harrowing history. Then they met.

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