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VMI removes statue of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson after long resistance

The Virginia Military Institute removed a prominent statue of Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson on Dec. 7. (Video: Associated Press)

Facing a torrent of allegations of racism on its campus, the Virginia Military Institute on Monday removed its century-old bronze statue of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson.

The school said the statue will be relocated to the Virginia Museum of the Civil War at New Market Battlefield State Historical Park — owned and operated by the college — about 80 miles north of VMI’s campus in Lexington.

The statue, sculpted by VMI graduate Moses Ezekiel and unveiled in 1912, has been the spiritual centerpiece of the 181-year-old school, where Jackson taught physics before defending slavery during the Civil War. The statue’s placement in front of the student barracks gave it a prominent home in the middle of the campus. Up until a few years ago, students had to salute the Jackson statue.

VMI — the nation’s oldest state-supported military college — had long resisted calls to remove Jackson, an enslaver of six people, from his perch.

In late October, the college’s Board of Visitors voted to remove the statue after current and former Black students described their experiences dealing with racism in a Washington Post report. About 6 percent of the school’s 1,700 students are Black.

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

In response to the report, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D), a VMI graduate, ordered an independent investigation of the school’s culture, and VMI’s longtime superintendent, retired Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, was pressured to resign.

Peay had defended the statue of Jackson, calling him a “military genius” and “staunch Christian.”

VMI, whose cadets fought and died at the Battle of New Market in 1864, now has its first-ever Black leader, retired Army Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Wins, who is serving as interim superintendent. The school, the last public college in Virginia to integrate, in 1968, received $19 million from the state this fiscal year.

“VMI does not define itself by this statue and that is why this move is appropriate,” Wins, a 1985 VMI graduate, said in a statement. “We are defined by our unique system of education and the quality and character of the graduates the Institute produces. Our graduates embody the values of honor, respect, civility, self-discipline, and professionalism. This is how we will continue to be defined.”

For decades, Black students and alumni have protested — some vocally, others quietly — the college’s celebration of the Confederacy and enslavers. Ten of its cadets fighting for the Confederacy were killed or died later from wounds suffered in the May 15, 1864, Battle of New Market.

A statue called “Virginia Mourning Her Dead” — also made by Ezekiel — sits along the border of the Parade Ground and contains the remains of several of the slain cadets.

At VMI, all students must memorize the names of the New Market cadets. Not knowing them is considered one of the school’s “cardinal sins,” according to the college’s “Rat Bible,” a book of history and rules given annually to first-year cadets. Up until this year, all new students had to participate in a quasi-
reenactment charge up the New Market battlefield.

In June, 2020 graduate Kaleb Tucker, who played football at VMI, launched an online campaign to get rid of the Jackson statue and “force VMI to acknowledge racism and black prejudice.”

On Monday, Tucker said: “It feels like a burden has been lifted seeing this happen, because it seemed impossible, as if all odds were against those in favor. Today, I became a little prouder to say that I graduated from the Virginia Military Institute.”

Jeremy Sanders, a 2015 graduate who published a counterpetition defending the statue, declined an interview request. “Yes, Jackson owned six slaves. No, he was not a perfect man, however he must be judged through the context of his age,” Sanders’s petition says.

On two of VMI’s Facebook groups for parents, alumni or friends, the removal of Jackson’s statue was mourned and condemned. One woman posted a photo of a crane poised to lift off the Jackson statue and wrote: “This is happening right now. There should not be another statue put there! Not of anyone, Black, White, Indian, Hispanic, NONE! SO angry that the history of such a great school is being erased.”

Her post yielded more than 200 comments by midafternoon.

“The Taliban has arrived at VMI. Shame of gutless leadership,” one man replied.

VMI is now grappling with other statues, memorials and namesakes linked to the Confederacy.

In November, a VMI board committee charged with scrutinizing the college’s commemorations and memorials said it was going to examine more than 30 “tributes which explicitly or implicitly represent iconography of the Confederacy.”

Across the field from the now-removed Jackson statue is a statue of Francis H. Smith, VMI’s first and longest-serving superintendent, who owned nine enslaved people and believed Blacks should be resettled in Africa.

Its dining hall is named after VMI’s first board president, Claudius Crozet, who was also an enslaver, according to Mary Lyons, author of four books on the Blue Ridge Railroad and Blue Ridge Tunnel, both of which Crozet designed.

It is Jackson, though, who is among the most frequently mythologized figures in campus lore.

A medal presented annually to the two “most distinguished graduates” is called the “Jackson-Hope” medal, named partly after the Confederate general. The school also gives out the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Award — established in 1957 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy — to a physics graduate. (Jackson, however, was widely considered by VMI’s own historians as a “mediocre” physics teacher.)

There is also the Jackson Arch entrance to the VMI barracks, where an inscribed maxim attributed to someone else reads, “You may be whatever you resolve to be.”

Correction: Tucker graduated from VMI this year. An earlier version of this report said he was a 2019 graduate.