Two members of the Virginia Military Institute’s Board of Visitors resigned Thursday, shortly before the group voted to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson from its prominent location by the student barracks.
Asked why he had quit, Outland, a 1981 VMI graduate who was just appointed this year for a four-year term, did not explain. “I completely support VMI and its Board of Visitors,” he said in an email, “and I plan to assist the Institute and the Board in any way possible, moving forward.”
Gottwald, who was appointed in 2018 and whose term was set to expire in 2022, offered a similar statement, saying that he supported the board and VMI and that “I will help them in any way I can going forward.”
Their sudden resignations were just the latest in a tumultuous month at the nation’s oldest state-supported military college, which is grappling with the fallout from revelations in The Washington Post about racism on the Lexington campus. Gov. Ralph Northam (D), a 1981 VMI graduate, has ordered an independent investigation into the school, which received $19 million in state funds in fiscal 2020. On Monday, the college’s longtime superintendent, retired Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, resigned.
Gottwald and Outland quit right before the board’s unanimous vote to move the Jackson statue to a new, undetermined location. Jackson, an enslaver of six people, taught at VMI before helping to lead the Confederate Army.
School officials had long resisted calls to remove the 1912 statue, with Peay defending Jackson as a “military genius” and “staunch Christian” over the summer. Some VMI alumni, who were once required to salute the Confederate general, agreed that Jackson was a hero and were angered by efforts to dislodge him.
In a petition on Change.org that has garnered 6,000 signatures, Jeremy Sanders, a Class of 2015 graduate and Army captain based in Colorado, complained that the “core” of 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.’ ”
“Yes, Jackson owned six slaves. No, he was not a perfect man, however he must be judged through the context of his age. To judge him through a 21st century lens is unjust,” the petition says, adding, “Removing the statue of Jackson is . . . an attempt to erase our history.”
VMI, whose cadets fought and died for the South during the Civil War, has always celebrated that history. Students are required to memorize the names of cadets who died in the Battle of New Market in 1864. Until this year, new students — called “rats” at VMI — would be transported to New Market, about 80 miles north of Lexington, where they would take their “cadet oath” and reenact the Confederates’ charge across the battlefield to earn their shoulder boards.
VMI was the last public college in Virginia to integrate, admitting five Black students in 1968. Today, about 8 percent of the college’s 1,700 students are African American.
In interviews with The Post, they described an atmosphere of bigotry and hostility at the 181-year-old school.
One Black student was in the middle of a business class last year when her professor suddenly reminisced about her father’s Ku Klux Klan membership; another Black student in 2018 was threatened that he’d be lynched during his first days as a freshman “rat.”
Black students are also the target of racist insults and jokes on an anonymous social media app called Jodel, which the school has identified as a problem but not banned.
After Northam and other state leaders called VMI’s culture “appalling,” board president John “Bill” Boland insisted in a response that “systemic racism does not exist here and a fair and independent review will find that to be true.”
On Thursday, Boland said he had changed his mind about Jackson because the statue was “drawing a lot of fire and distracting from what our true mission was.”
Meanwhile, Northam wrote a letter Thursday to various state officials outlining the process for the VMI inquiry.
In the next two to three weeks, he said the state will hire a third party to conduct the investigation. He said he hopes the team will use interviews, focus groups and anonymous surveys and that it will review documents and other relevant school policies. He also said the team will identify any civil rights violations or immediate or past threats of racial violence.
Northam set December as the deadline for a preliminary report and June 2021 as the date for final findings and recommendations.