The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Northam calls for VMI investigation after Black cadets describe relentless racism

The Virginia Military Institute Corps of Cadets marches in the parade for the 2017 inauguration of Donald Trump. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) ordered an investigation into the culture at the Virginia Military Institute on Monday after Black cadets and alumni described relentless racism at the nation’s oldest state-supported military college.

The governor, who graduated in VMI’s Class of 1981, co-wrote a letter to the college’s Board of Visitors informing it that the state will fund an independent probe into the school’s treatment of its Black students.

His action followed a Washington Post story detailing a lynching threat, Klan reminiscences and Confederacy veneration at the Lexington school, whose cadets fought and died for the slaveholding South during the Civil War.

The letter — signed by Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D), Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D), and several House and Senate leaders, including Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), the chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus — said the state is directing an “independent, third-party review” of what officials called “the clear and appalling culture of ongoing structural racism at the Virginia Military Institute.”

[At VMI, Black cadets endure lynching threats, Klan memories and Confederacy veneration]

“Black cadets at VMI have long faced repeated instances of racism on campus, including horrifying new revelations of threats about lynching, vicious attacks on social media, and even a professor who spoke fondly of her family’s history in the Ku Klux Klan—to say nothing of inconsistent application of the Institute’s Honor Code,” the letter said. “In addition, VMI cadets continue to be educated in a physical environment that honors the Confederacy and celebrates an inaccurate and dangerous ‘Lost Cause’ version of Virginia’s history. It is long past time to consign these relics to the dustbin of history.

“This culture is unacceptable for any Virginia institution in the 21st century, especially one funded by taxpayers. 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particularly public universities established by the General Assembly—to be welcoming and inclusive, and to eschew outdated traditions that glamorize a history rooted in rebellion against the United States.”

A VMI spokesman did not return messages seeking comment Monday evening. In a statement to The Post last week, retired Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, the school’s superintendent, said: “There is no place for racism or discrimination at VMI.” He promised that “any allegation of racism or discrimination will be investigated and appropriately punished, if substantiated.”

Black cadets make up about 8 percent of VMI’s 1,700 students. The school, which was founded in 1839 and became the last public college in Virginia to integrate in 1968, received nearly $19 million in state funds this past fiscal year.

The campus’s main Parade Ground features two statues of enslavers — Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson, who taught at VMI, and the school’s first superintendent, Francis H. Smith, who believed Black people should be resettled in Africa. Until a few years ago, freshmen were required to salute the Jackson statue, which sits in front of the student barracks.

In The Post article, Black students and alumni described an atmosphere of hostility and cultural insensitivity. One Black woman, who graduated in the Class of 2019, filed a complaint against her White business professor who reminisced in class about her father’s membership in the Ku Klux Klan — and how they had “the best parties ever.”

Other Black students said they were outraged in 2018 when a White sophomore told a Black freshman during Hell Week that he’d “lynch” his body and use his “dead corpse as a punching bag.” According to a Black student who helped investigate the incident, the White student was only suspended, not expelled.

Several members of the Virginia House of Delegates expressed outrage after reading The Post story.

“Virginia needs to take immediate action to stop the culture of racism and oppression at Virginia Military Institute,” tweeted Del. Mark H. Levine (D-Alexandria), who is White. “If VMI won’t immediately end this now, it is up to us in the General Assembly to do it. Shape up, VMI. Or else.”

Del. Don L. Scott Jr. (D-Portsmouth) said in an interview that the accounts from Black cadets and alumni “sickened” him.

“It’s 2020. No student should have to sit in a classroom and be lectured about the benefits of the Ku Klux Klan . . . especially at a school with a statue of Stonewall Jackson and that extols the virtues of the Confederacy,” said Scott, who is African American. “The leadership of the school is in an echo chamber. That’s why they’re not appalled by this.”

Del. Jennifer D. Carroll Foy (D-Prince William), a Black VMI graduate who is running for governor, said cadets accused of racism, sexism or bullying should be investigated and, if found guilty, expelled. She said the school also needs to create a diversity and inclusion office and institute diversity training for those who work there.

“I personally went through more egregious experiences at VMI that I do not wish to recount,” said Foy, 39, who graduated in 2003. She said it was particularly disturbing to read what the current generation of VMI students has endured because it shows that “the culture has not improved over the years.”

Peay, who has served as superintendent since 2003, has defended the campus’s statues, praising Jackson in a July letter as a “military genius” and a “staunch Christian.”

At VMI, Black alumni want Stonewall Jackson’s statue removed. The school refuses.

All of the school’s top officials, including the VMI chief of staff, the faculty dean, and the inspector general/Title IX coordinator, are White men. Of VMI’s 17 board members, just three are Black.

The school’s administrators and staff have also participated in racist incidents themselves. In 2017, Col. William Wanovich, the school’s commandant of cadets, posed in a photo with students who donned boxes to look like President Trump’s border wall, scrawled with “Keep Out” and No Cholos,” a slur against Mexicans. The school has declined to say whether Wanovich, who kept his job, was ever punished.

In June, Carmelo Echevarria Colon III, a former battalion operations and training sergeant who had been at the college since 2012, denounced the Black Lives Matter movement in a Facebook post that surfaced on Twitter: “I am seeing all these clowns taking a knee and bowing to [protest]. I’ll take a knee alright. To maximize my shooting platform.”

Colon left the school this summer.

Race began publicly roiling VMI in June when Kaleb Tucker, who had just graduated after enduring four years of indignities as a Black cadet, shared an online petition demanding the removal of the Jackson statue. His effort sparked a counter-petition by Jeremy Sanders, a Class of 2015 graduate and Army captain, who wrote that the “core” of VMI was “under attack by those who seek to destroy these noble ideas that have made VMI cadets an ‘honor to their country and state.’ ”

Northam has made racial equity in Virginia a cause since he was caught up in a blackface scandal over his 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook. His page showed a photo of two people, one dressed in blackface, the other in a Klan robe. Initially, Northam said he was in the picture but did not specify which costume he wore. The next day, though, Northam said he wasn’t in the picture at all.

But Northam also acknowledged that he had applied shoe polish on his cheeks in 1984 while dressed up as Michael Jackson for a dance contest.

Last year, it was revealed that one of his nicknames as a VMI undergraduate and listed under his yearbook photo was “Coonman,” which some Black state legislators deemed a racial slur. (“Coon” is a dictionary-defined offensive term targeting Black people.) Northam has said he is not sure how it became his nickname.

As governor, Northam is charged with appointing members of the college’s Board of Visitors. His selections, though, must be confirmed by the Virginia General Assembly.

In 2019, he reappointed one Black board member, Gene Scott, who graduated in VMI’s Class of 1980, and appointed a new Black board member, Michael L. Hamlar. This year, he appointed the Board’s third Black member, Lester Johnson, a member of VMI’s Class of 1995.

Read more:

She was the last American to collect a Civil War pension — $73.13 a month. She just died.

Re-watching ‘The Civil War’ during the Breonna Taylor and George Floyd protests

At 88, he is a historical rarity — the living son of a slave

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