The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

VMI official to Northam: ‘Systemic racism does not exist here’

A statue of Confederate Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson stands in front of the barracks at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP)

The Virginia Military Institute fought back Tuesday against allegations that its Black cadets face bigotry and hostility, telling Gov. Ralph Northam (D) in a letter that “systemic racism does not exist here and a fair and independent review will find that to be true.”

The letter, signed by John Boland, president of VMI’s Board of Visitors, came after Northam and other state leaders authorized an independent investigation of the culture of the 181-year-old school in Lexington. Northam is a 1981 graduate of VMI.

Boland said he welcomed the independent inquiry and was “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.” And he dismissed a Washington Post report that detailed racist incidents at the state-supported military college, including a lynching threat against a student, Klan reminiscences by a professor and a denunciation of the Black Lives Matter movement by a VMI leader.

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

“The incidents detailed in the Washington Post article, several of which are many years old, had more to do with an individual’s lapse of judgment than they do with the culture of the Institute,” Boland wrote. “Each one, as is the case with any allegation of racism or discrimination, was investigated thoroughly and appropriate action was meted out in a timely fashion. These incidents were perpetrated by few individuals and were in no way condoned by the Institute.”

On Tuesday, the school’s superintendent, retired Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, sent a letter to the VMI community stating that he, too, did not believe “systemic racism is present at VMI; however, we can always work to improve on our actions.”

“VMI will emerge from this process stronger than ever before,” said Peay, 80, who has led the school for the past 17 years.

Allegations of racism at VMI, whose cadets fought and died for the Confederacy during the Civil War, date back decades. On the campus’s main Parade Ground stand two statues of enslavers: Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson and Francis H. Smith, VMI’s first superintendent, who believed that Black people should be resettled in Africa.

The school, which received $19 million from the state this past fiscal year, was the last public college in Virginia to integrate, admitting five Black students in 1968.

Now Black people make up about 8 percent of the school’s 1,700 students. Only three of the 17 members of the Board of Visitors are Black. All of the school’s top administrators are White men.

Shortly after he graduated in May, Kaleb Tucker, who is Black, launched an online campaign asking the school to remove the Jackson statue and acknowledge rampant bigotry on campus. In response, Peay released a seven-page letter promising to “erase any hint of racism at VMI” while defending Jackson, who owned six enslaved Black people, as a “military genius” and a “staunch Christian.”

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

In a statement to The Post earlier this month, Peay added that “there is no place for racism or discrimination at VMI” and that “any allegation of racism or discrimination will be investigated and appropriately punished, if substantiated.”

In an interview with The Post, a Black woman who graduated in 2019 recounted how her business professor reminisced about her father’s Ku Klux Klan membership in the middle of class. After the student complained, the professor apologized but was allowed to continue teaching at VMI.

Many Black students expressed horror when they learned that a White student told a Black freshman cadet in 2018 that he’d “lynch” his body and use his “dead corpse as a punching bag.” A Black student who helped investigate the incident said the White student was only suspended, not expelled.

VMI administrators or staff members have also participated in racist incidents, including its commandant of cadets, Col. William Wanovich, who in 2017 posed in a Halloween photo with students dressed up as President Trump’s border wall scrawled with the words “Keep Out” and “No Cholos,” a slur against Mexicans.

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.

Northam’s letter — which was also signed by 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 — told the VMI board that it expects preliminary results from the investigation by the end of the year.

“This culture is unacceptable for any Virginia institution in the 21st century, especially one funded by taxpayers,” the letter said.