The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Black man will lead VMI for the first time in history, amid racism investigation

Retired Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Wins. (Army)

Under fierce attack over racism in its ranks, the Virginia Military Institute has appointed a Black man to lead the school for the first time in its 181-year history, VMI officials announced Friday.

Retired Army Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Wins, who graduated from VMI in 1985, will serve as interim superintendent until the Board of Visitors appoints a permanent chief to oversee the country’s oldest state-funded military college. He takes over from the school’s longtime superintendent, retired Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, who resigned after Black cadets described startling bigotry in a Washington Post report.

At VMI, Black cadets endure a lynching threat, Klan memories and Confederacy veneration

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) ordered an independent investigation of what he and other officials called “the clear and appalling culture of ongoing structural racism” at VMI, which received $19 million from the state in fiscal 2020.

“We welcome the investigation, because it allows us to set the record straight on many fronts and to better understand the experiences of all cadets,” Wins, a 57-year-old two-star general, wrote in an email to VMI alumni early Friday evening. “We will also have the opportunity to demonstrate the importance of VMI’s unique method of education that calls forth leaders in our nation. We remain committed to a challenging but equitable experience for all.”

“It is my commitment to you,” he promised near the end of the email, “that we will change what is necessary and safeguard what is necessary to preserve.”

Wins played basketball at VMI, becoming one of the top five scorers in school history, according to the announcement of his appointment. After graduating with a degree in economics, he entered the Army as a field artillery officer and served for 34 years, including stints at Army headquarters and the Pentagon. He also earned two master’s degrees, in management from the Florida Institute of Technology and in national security and strategic studies from the National War College.

Alumni who have been pushing VMI to abandon its embrace of Confederate symbols and traditions applauded the appointment.

“The selection of Major General Wins is a strong move in the right direction,” said Michael Purdy, a 1999 VMI graduate and a Google attorney who helped lead a campaign this year to remove a campus statue of Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. “It tells the commonwealth and nation that VMI still produces high-caliber leaders and is ready to embrace positive change. Given his stellar reputation, we’re optimistic that General Wins will lead the institute with clarity of purpose.”

The school, which was founded in 1839 and whose cadets fought and died for the Confederacy in the Civil War, has had 14 superintendents, all of them White. It 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.) About 8 percent of the school’s 1,700 students are African American.

In interviews with The Post, some Black cadets and recent alumni said they endured a hostile atmosphere at VMI.

One Black student was in a business class last year when her professor reminisced about her father’s Ku Klux Klan membership. In 2018, a White sophomore told a Black freshman during “Hell Week” that he would “lynch” his body and use his “dead corpse as a punching bag.” Black students are also the target of racist insults and jokes on an anonymous social media app called Jodel.

Last month, VMI’s board voted to remove the statue of Jackson — who taught at VMI before helping to lead the Confederate Army — from the campus’s most prominent spot, in front of the student barracks. School officials had long resisted removing Jackson, an enslaver of six people who is celebrated at VMI as a military genius.

Some VMI alumni have been angered by the efforts to dislodge the statue. In a petition on that has garnered more than 7,700 signatures, Jeremy Sanders, a Class of 2015 graduate and Army captain, warned that the school was “under attack by those who seek to destroy these noble ideas that have made VMI cadets an ‘honor to their country and state.’ ”

Until a few years ago, students had to salute the Jackson statue. They are still required to memorize the names of VMI cadets who died defending slavery during the Civil War.

The college’s main administration building is named after VMI’s first superintendent, Francis H. Smith, who enslaved nine people and believed Blacks should be resettled in Africa. A statue of Smith also stands in front of the building. VMI’s dining hall is also named after an enslaver.

E. Sean Lanier, a Black 1994 VMI graduate whose nonprofit education organization counts Wins as an advisory board member, said he was excited about his appointment as interim superintendent.

Lanier, who Northam announced Friday will become VMI's fourth Black board member, praised Wins for his military, academic and athletic career and said his biography should inspire cadets.

“He’s an example of the full package,” Lanier said. “I am ecstatic. The fact that in times of uncertainty, you can draw upon the strength of character of a person like Major General Wins shows why VMI will thrive in the years ahead.”

The school said Friday that it expects to pick a permanent superintendent by next summer.