After reading descriptions by Black cadets of what they endure, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) ordered an independent investigation into what he and other state officials called “the clear and appalling culture of ongoing structural racism at the Virginia Military Institute.”
VMI’s superintendent, retired Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, resigned Monday in the wake of the controversy. The 80-year-old four-star general, who had run VMI since 2003, had resisted calls to remove the Jackson statue, calling him a “military genius” and “staunch Christian.”
It is unclear where the statue of Jackson — an enslaver of six people who taught at the school before helping to lead the Confederate Army — will go.
The board’s chairman, John “Bill” Boland, suggested it might be transferred to New Market, the Civil War battlefield where VMI cadets fought and died for the slaveholding South. Or it could be carted off to storage, he said.
In an interview after the hearing, Boland acknowledged the statue’s symbolism and said: “It’s time to move forward. [The monument] was drawing a lot of fire and distracting from what our true mission is. The most important thing to me is to maintain our mission and our methods.”
The board also agreed to create a diversity office at VMI and a diversity and inclusion committee. Of VMI’s 17 board members, three are Black. All the school’s top officials, including the VMI chief of staff, the faculty dean and the inspector general/Title IX coordinator, are White men.
Northam, who graduated from VMI in 1981, applauded the board’s moves.
“Those of us who love this school must continue to come together to make it better — not just for some, but for all,” he said.
Del. Jennifer Caroll Foy (D-Prince William), one of the first Black women to graduate from VMI in 2003, said it is crucial for the school to fight racism and discrimination in its ranks.
“While VMI has a history rooted in the Confederacy,” said Foy, who is running for governor, “ it must have a future that’s rooted in inclusion and diversity.”
The Jackson statue was erected in 1912. Its presence in front of the barracks has always rankled Black cadets, who make up about 8 percent of VMI’s 1,700 students, as well as some White cadets and alumni. Until a few years ago, students had to salute the statue when they passed it. This year, Black alumni launched a campaign to remove the Jackson statue led by Kaleb Tucker, who was a starting cornerback on VMI’s football team before graduating in May.
Tucker created a Change.org petition, asking the school “to acknowledge the racism and black prejudice that still occurs at VMI” and “to tear down” the Jackson statue.
On Thursday, Tucker, a business data analyst in Hampton, Va., said he was elated. He believes Jackson’s prominent perch on the campus Parade Ground in front of the barracks makes too many students feel uncomfortable. He hopes the school places the statue in a museum.
“If something or someone is in place that does not signify equality and justice for all, then VMI is not the place for it,” he said. “Each step towards equality and justice at my alma mater touches my heart dearly.”
Another group of alumni, led by Shah Rahman, Conor Powell, Michael Purdy and George “Donnie” Hasseltine, asked the board to form a racially diverse commission of alumni and cadets to re-examine all the school’s traditions, monuments and building names. But Boland rejected their idea, arguing that it was the board’s responsibility.
In a statement, those four alumni called the board’s decision to remove the Jackson statue “the first step on a long road to a new VMI.” But they also called for Boland’s resignation.
“He has proven himself to be badly out of touch with VMI’s culture and the value system of the Commonwealth and military,” they said. “He’s furthermore shown himself to be an obstructionist who fought the removal of the Confederate statues, refused outside advice, and denies any implication that there might be an atmosphere of bigotry at VMI.”
After Northam ordered the investigation into VMI's culture, Boland insisted in a letter that “systemic racism does not exist here and a fair and independent review will find that to be true.”
VMI 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.
But it remains a difficult place for women and people of color to attend.
One Black graduate filed a complaint last year against a White adjunct professor who reminisced during class about her father’s Ku Klux Klan membership. In 2018, a White sophomore told a Black freshman during Hell Week he would “lynch” his body and use his “dead corpse as a punching bag.” A lesbian who left VMI this summer said many LGBTQ students do not come out for fear of the consequences. One male upperclassman compared her sexual orientation to porn addiction, she said.
VMI students also use an anonymous social media app called Jodel, where they frequently spew racist and misogynistic jokes and insults aimed at Black students, especially those who have spoken critically of the school to The Post.
“We will not let outsiders and imposters destroy what’s so great about this place. WE NEED TO STEP OFF,” one cadet wrote, using a VMI term for disregarding corps rules and that is tantamount to mutiny.
After the board vote on the Jackson statue, it discussed hiring a search firm to find candidates to replace Peay, who earned $545,000, according to a Washington Business Journal database of Virginia public employee salaries. One name that has surfaced as a possible replacement: retired Air Force Gen. Darren McDew, a Black 1982 VMI graduate.
On Wednesday night, Peay’s tenure was celebrated by VMI’s cadets. He entered the barracks to thunderous applause.
“It’s been the honor of a lifetime,” he said, his voice cracking, “to serve the institute. . . . I’ve always loved VMI. That sounds kind of corny. But I always have. And I will miss you, the Corps. And I’ll miss VMI in many, many ways in the years ahead.”