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Under Attack: Virginia Military Institute’s culture is forced to change — but how much?

Graduates of Virginia Military Institute (VMI) include some of the United States’ most illustrious leaders in government, business, education and professional sports – Nobel Prize laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners among them. Founded in 1839 as the nation’s first state military college, VMI even trained a young Mel Brooks during World War II.

But VMI graduated the infamous, too – leaders who fought during the Civil War to preserve slavery and destroy the U.S. – men like Edward Edmonds, Confederate colonel of the 38th Virginia Infantry; John McCausland, a brigadier general who served under the “unrepentant rebel” Gen. Jubal Early; and Walter Taylor, aide-de-camp to Gen. Robert E. Lee and later a state senator and staunch defender of the Confederacy.

This deep-rooted connection to the Confederacy lives on in VMI culture. The college’s core identity has been inextricably and purposefully linked with the “Lost Cause” and one of its most revered and mythologized generals, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.  Both he and Lee, who commanded the Confederate army, are buried in Lexington, a bastion of Confederate idolatry and home to VMI.

Cadets of the Virginia Military Institute take part in war reenactment
Cadets, some in period costume, reenact the Battle of New Market at the New Market Battlefield Park, as part of the activities of Oath Day, on Sept. 6, 2015, in Shenandoah County, Virginia. (Credit: VMI Archives Photograph Collection)

In 2020, The Washington Post exposed a longstanding, entrenched atmosphere of racism and sexism at VMI – and an embedded reverence for the Confederacy so deep and pervasive that it spawned several traditions. For example, reenactments of the Battle of New Market, where VMI cadets fought for the Confederacy, lasted until 2020, when outside pressure brought them to an abrupt end.

The campus is, even today, littered with statues, memorials and other tributes to the Confederacy.

Even before the exposé, a group of alumni activists had begun publicly campaigning for the removal of Confederate iconography from the VMI campus as part of a wider change they say is necessary to replace an atmosphere that normalizes racism and sexism with one that is tolerant, inclusive and welcoming to all cadets.

Their movement ignited a fierce and ugly resistance to change. After some initial success, VMI’s governing board has determined that many of the remaining Confederate symbols will stay in place.

But the activists aren’t giving up. Some of their voices can be heard on a new episode of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Sounds Like Hate” podcast, released this week. Several of the activists appeared during a panel discussion this week at the SPLC’s Civil Rights Memorial Center (CRMC), along with the podcast producers, to examine VMI’s attempt to reckon with its past. The podcast launch and CRMC event coincide with this weekend’s commemoration of Juneteenth, marking the emancipation of enslaved people at the end of the Civil War.

“When VMI allows Confederate memorials to remain in public space, they are continuing to condone and even celebrate those very same values,” said Kimberly Probolus, senior research analyst for the SPLC’s Intelligence Project, who led the panel discussion.

“Symbolically, this undermines the school’s effort to promote more sweeping and systemic changes to promote racial justice. The fact that these symbols remain at VMI not only makes the campus unwelcoming to students but also affects their ability to learn and thrive. I’d love to see them do more to remove Confederate symbols, which would send a powerful message that they are serious.”

Taunts and slurs

Keniya Lee, who graduated from VMI in 2019, is among the students and alumni of color who describe receiving or witnessing a litany of taunts, slurs and lynching threats during their time at the institute.

In a recent interview with the SPLC, Lee described a faculty member reminiscing in class about the fun KKK “parties” she attended as a child with her father, then a local Klan leader. The instructor went on to recount head “bobbing” forays – hitting people of color walking about town or hitting them with a car – though she denied having taken part.

“She ended the lecture saying that before college, she had never met nor spoken to any Black person. And when she went to college on a basketball scholarship, she said she never played because all the Black people were so athletically gifted at basketball,” Lee said. “She said that before college, she didn’t know what Blacks ate or if they had the ability to read, write, or to learn. She didn’t know how we smelled, if we bathed, if we wore the same clothes, or if we had the ability to eat the same food. Then she said, ‘Times have changed. People love each other. It’s all great now.’ ”

Two days later, after confiding in a trusted professor, Lee reported the instructor to her department head. As her complaint proceeded through the chain of command, Lee was told she would have to remain in the class to graduate. Lee demanded an apology. Five months later, the teacher reluctantly apologized. “I’m only apologizing because of a complaint,” she told the class.

“I had had enough. I had heard [racist comments] from students and alumni to my face like, ‘[N-word], we will find a way to get you out.’ ‘You don’t belong. You’re a female and you’re just here as an athlete.’ But when it came from faculty, I thought, here I pay tuition and you didn’t even think Blacks could learn.”

Shah Rahman, now 48, was born in Bangladesh. He grew up in North Africa and the Middle East before arriving in the U.S. at the age of 16 and attending VMI.

“I faced racism throughout all the years I was at VMI, hearing the constant use of the N-word,” Rahman told the SPLC.

Even though it’s been more than two decades since then, he won’t talk about the “worst racist things that happened to me, because it cuts so deep.”

“Growing up I was inspired by Jackson and Patton,” Rahman said. “I didn’t realize that I was reading a sanitized version of the Civil War and that the heroic battles were mythology. When I got to VMI … I knew things were not OK, but I wasn’t going to challenge an upperclassman. I kept my head down. … You take it one day at a time and just want to graduate.”

Rahman’s eyes opened after 9/11 when hate crime and police harassment against American Muslims surged. After Donald Trump was elected president in 2016 amid a campaign appealing to white grievance, the deadly Unite the Right rally the following year was Rahman’s lightbulb moment.

“I began to connect the Civil War and Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee when I saw the skinheads marching in Charlottesville and saw the [Lee] statue as a symbol of hate. I began to link [its] worship with what the crazies were doing.”

‘Lost Cause’ tradition

On the VMI campus today, Confederate symbols large and small loom. Among them: buildings and rooms named for Confederate military leaders; tributes to Francis Smith, VMI’s first superintendent and a Confederate colonel; Stonewall Jackson’s stuffed horse inside the VMI Museum; and Memorial Hall’s chapel centerpiece mural tribute to the New Market cadets.

“You’re supposed to be worshiping God [in the chapel], but you look right at Confederate soldiers. If that’s not mythology, I don’t know what is,” said alumnus activist Mike Purdy, who joined Lee and Rahman at the SPLC event this week. All three appear on the “Sounds Like Hate” podcast.

Alumni remember cadets hiding Confederate flags and propaganda before inspection of their rooms and a prohibition on hanging Black History Month pictures. Cadets were effectively banned from participating in nearby Washington & Lee University’s Martin Luther King parade, prohibited from wearing either their VMI uniform or civilian clothes.

The only recognition on campus of a Black person honors the white VMI alum and civil rights activist Jonathan Daniels. Students are taught that he sacrificed his life for a Black woman.

The hall named for him is adjacent to the VMI laundry, which, as Lee noted, is not a prominent location.

Even amid the country’s racial reckoning since the police murder of George Floyd in 2020, VMI clings fast to its traditions.

In the months following Floyd’s death, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) ordered “divisive symbols” to be removed from military installations. Congress then ordered the removal or renaming of more than 750 DOD-owned “assets” honoring Confederate heroes by 2024 (SPLC Action Fund).

As a state military college, however, VMI is under no such order. And, unlike the U.S. military, in which 17% of active-duty servicemembers in 2021 were Black, VMI’s Black cadets made up only 6% of the 1,652 at the school in 2021.

But the college has traditionally been slow to change its ways.

It was the last public college in Virginia to integrate in 1968 – and only under threat of losing federal funding. (Until 1973, when Black students campaigned to end the practices, they were expected to salute a Confederate flag and listen to “Dixie” played by the regimental band.)

VMI was also the last military college — and one of the last two public all-male colleges — in the U.S. to accept women in 1997. Even after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against VMI in United States v. Virginia, in a majority opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, VMI defied the order for three months until its board  narrowly voted against taking the school private to evade the ruling. Opponents predicted women would degrade the school’s uniqueness – just as conservative alumni now claim that the implementation of a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) program will bring “ordinary” to VMI – contrary to its oft-invoked motto: “Don’t do ordinary.”

Progress, then backlash

The movement for change found initial success.

The school removed or renamed three of its 34 Confederate memorials, namely the signature monument to Stonewall Jackson, who had taught at VMI before he took up arms against the United States. Three additional memorials were removed sometime before and after 2020, according to the SPLC’s Whose Heritage? database, which tracks Confederate symbols in public spaces nationwide.

After the growing calls for a change in the school’s culture, then-Gov. Ralph Northam, a VMI alum, threatened to pull the school’s approximately $21 million 2020 funding, and the school’s longtime superintendent resigned. A searing, outside report commissioned by Northam and released in June 2020 confirmed the toxic culture and recommended institutional change. To that end, Northam appointed an Indigenous woman, three Black men and one Latinx man to the Board of Visitors (BOV), the school’s 16-member governing body.

Cranes remove statue
Crews lift a statue of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, a general in the Confederacy, from its pedestal on the campus of the Virginia Military Institute on Monday, Dec. 7, 2020, in Lexington, Virginia. (Credit: Sarah Rankin/AP)

In December 2020, VMI finally removed the Stonewall Jackson monument due to intense political pressure and negative local and national media coverage. It had been only a few years before that the obligatory tradition of saluting the Jackson statue ended.

In another sign of progress, VMI’s first Black superintendent, retired Maj. Gen. Cedric Wins, has issued DEI goals; spearheaded diversity training under the school’s first chief diversity officer, Jamaica Love; established a DEI Committee; and reformed its disciplinary system, which disproportionately punished Black cadets.

In response to the changes, white alumni, students and parents have waged a threatening – even litigious – campaign on social media networks, including the anonymous student chat app Jodel and on private and public VMI Facebook groups.

They vented outrage on websites such as The Cadet newspaper and Bacon’s Rebellion, claiming that VMI is being “ruined,” its illustrious history erased by “woke” alumni activists. Some alumni – who annually contribute about 25% of VMI’s overall budget ($27.5 million in upcoming 2023) – even formed the political action committee Spirit of VMI to help elect Gov. Glenn Youngkin, an outspoken critic of inclusive education in public schools.

Purdy and his fellow activists have received vicious threats since they began to push for change two years ago.

“I was still [last month] receiving physical threats online and in email, one guy saying he hoped we could meet up because it will end very badly for me,” Purdy said.

Amid this backlash, VMI has decided to hold onto its Confederate iconography.

On April 30, its governing board voted to “retain all the remaining statues and building names. Additionally, the vast majority of the other commemorative items, artwork and memorials that had been the subject of the [Commemorations and Memorials Naming and Review] committee’s scrutiny because of the items’ association, however indirectly, with the Civil War, slavery, and the Confederacy will remain.”

The committee report noted that items that venerated slavery or the Confederacy were removed, and “new and updated contextualizing information” will be added to those that remain in their current location.

A new day?

Keniya Lee can still recall in minute detail that day in 2019 when, as the sole Black person and woman in class, she couldn’t leave without possibly jeopardizing graduation: how she struggled to hold back tears so no one would call her weak or emotional or “acting like a Black woman”; where she sat in relation to the other students (alone in the front row); how many steps she walked from the class to her barracks (120), where she sat on her bed and sobbed.

Keniya Lee
Keniya Lee, an alumna of VMI, is a member of the alumni association’s diversity, equity and inclusion committee. (Credit: Contributed)

But these days, Lee is optimistic about her alma mater. She has become a member of the alumni association’s DEI Committee. She has joined the VMI chapter of the Promaji Alumni Impact group and helped it secure regular VMI funding. At VMI’s invitation, she spoke last fall at a conference on civil engagement and leadership.

“I used to think that [speaking out] was the worst decision I ever made, but now I believe everything I went through was worth it,” said Lee. “These things have to happen for change to happen.”

As for Purdy, Rahman and their fellow activists, they are pleased with the school’s new direction. Still, they are monitoring progress to ensure that VMI lives up to its diversity and inclusion goals. They have established an alumni fund (the pot holds about $50,000 already) to further the school’s DEI efforts. And they support tributes the school is considering, such as a memorial to the school’s enslaved workers.

But they recognize that many connected to VMI wish to turn back time.

“We are still working to change hearts and minds,” said Purdy, noting that some alumni are still talking about bringing back the Stonewall Jackson statue.

“I think five to 10 years from now if we have another racial reckoning like the summer of George Floyd’s death, people will ask, ‘Why haven’t you taken [the symbols] down?’ ”

Top picture: The Virginia Military Institute was founded in 1839 as the nation’s first state military college. (Credit: iStockphoto)