VMI removed the 108-year-old Stonewall Jackson statue on Dec. 7, 2020.
Courtesy Virginia Military Institute
Like Williams, the foursome of 1990s graduates—Hasseltine, Powell, Purdy and Rahman—had tried persuasion and failed. Next they went public.
Rahman got a Washington Post reporter, Ian Shapira, interested in the story. He urged Shapira to look beyond the hot-button issue of Confederate statues to the broader racial climate on post. On Oct. 17, a month after VMI’s board voted to approve Peay’s blueprint and keep the Jackson statue, Shapira’s article detailing “relentless racism” at VMI appeared on the Post’s front page. It recounted a litany of troubling events, including a 2018 incident in which a white upperclassman threatened a Black freshman with lynching. The upperclassman was suspended rather than expelled; the freshman was later expelled for cheating, a charge he contended was concocted as retaliation. The article also detailed the steady stream of racial slurs cadets post on Jodel, an anonymous chat app.
Reaction was immediate. Democratic Governor Ralph Northam, VMI class of 1981, ordered an independent investigation into “the clear and appalling culture of ongoing structural racism” at VMI. The Democrat atop the state senate budget committee threatened to yank its $19 million in state funding if nothing changed.
Bill Boland, the president of VMI’s board of visitors, issued a statement insisting “systemic racism does not exist here.” The incidents described, he said, were isolated events that had been addressed. But within a week, Peay, who had been planning to retire at the end of the year, concluded the governor had lost confidence in him and resigned. A few days later, the board, fearing a broader crackdown, voted unanimously to remove the Jackson statue and set up committees to examine the school’s racial climate and Confederate monuments. Two members resigned in protest before the meeting.
To many alumni, it all smacked of “cancel culture.” A liberal mob, abetted by the news media, had manufactured phony grievances to force the school to succumb to the faddish tide of political correctness. It seemed especially rich coming from Northam, who in 2019 was discovered to have published a blackface photo in his 1984 medical-school yearbook. (He later denied he was in the photo and resisted calls to resign.) Peay, many argued, deserved the same due process Northam had demanded. “But instead of a fair inquiry, what you delivered was an accusatory, full-on cultural and political vendetta against your alma mater,” wrote a 1967 alum and former board member, Carter Melton, in an open letter to the governor he paid to have printed in the Times-Dispatch as a full-page ad. (A spokeswoman for Northam said the governor was “concerned by the pace of progress,” and noted that his letter was hardly the first time VMI had been called upon to change.)
The Republican state senate leader, Tommy Norment, a 1968 VMI grad, warned Northam not to “let the media lynch VMI.” Purdy and his allies were threatened and called “quislings” and “traitors” on Facebook. White alums posted that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery and that Stonewall Jackson was a hero. VMI’s Black students, many commenters argued, were mostly athletic recruits who benefited from lower academic standards and didn’t appreciate what made the school special. “Remove the black alumni, problem solved,” one wrote.
There was no winning the argument for the minority cadets who sometimes spoke up to challenge these views. If they testified to their personal experiences, they were branded as “disgruntled” complainers; if they didn’t, they were held up as proof that racism wasn’t really prevalent. The controversy shattered the bond of rat brotherhood. The Peays, whom Powell once considered as close as family, no longer speak to him. In one online exchange, a classmate challenged Hasseltine’s honor, a VMI taboo. Rahman says he would not feel safe setting foot on campus. “Donnie and I thought, our brother rats, they will never turn their backs on us,” Rahman says. “That was not the case. I have never been so disappointed.”
One group of conservative alumni has formed an unaffiliated political action committee, the Spirit of VMI, that plans to grade elected officials and run political ads. In a recent webinar for supporters, the group’s leader, a 1985 graduate named Matt Daniel, explained its raison d’être: “We were heartbreakingly disappointed that an entire community, a family, people that we know and love and respect, were all labeled as racists—not just incidental racists but systemic racists,” he said. (Daniel declined to be interviewed unless I agreed to answer a series of questions and commit to running his responses to my questions verbatim. Other alumni who have publicly opposed the changes under way at VMI also declined interview requests.)
Rather than fight, some turned defeatist. “If the wokes intend to knuckle VMI under, perhaps there is a greater question at stake here: is VMI worth saving?” a former state GOP executive director named Shaun Kenney wrote in a blog post titled “Maybe VMI Needs to Close on Our Terms.” The alternative, conservatives fret, is a campus whose distinctive features have all been erased, smoothed into another snowflake-coddling bastion of censorious academic liberalism, where students spew social-justice jargon, invent new pronouns and accuse one another of “problematic” behavior.
They are right about one thing: the liberals have already won, and there is no going back. Stonewall Jackson’s bronze body sits in storage at New Market, waiting to be resurrected in his new home overlooking the battlefield. In April, the school replaced Peay with its first Black superintendent, Cedric Wins, class of 1985. A search is under way for VMI’s first chief diversity officer. At a public meeting in December, the board received a presentation from the state’s chief diversity officer, Janice Underwood, who laid out the difference between “equality” and “equity” and explained why statements like “I don’t see color” are not acceptable. Underwood urged the board members to “lean into discomfort” and suggested they pick up Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility.
It has come to pass as Purdy and his allies predicted. The institute rejected the opportunity to change on its own terms; now it is at the mercy of liberal outsiders, dragged kicking and screaming toward what they consider progress.
Cadets gather outside the barracks, near the area where Stonewall Jackson’s statue once stood.
Jared Soares for TIME
This April, on the 156th anniversary of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the members of VMI’s new Commemorations and Memorials Naming and Review Committee filed into an ornate room on campus, across the vast parade ground from the barracks. It was their first in-person meeting, and the first where they would consider the fate of Confederate symbols on post.
The school’s line these days is that reports of racism on campus are overblown, but that it is embracing change and welcomes the investigation, whose findings are set to be released on June 1. The committee had drawn up an inventory of 38 pieces of Confederate iconography, from the four Civil War cannons in front of the barracks to the gravestone marking the 1997 burial of the cremated remains of Jackson’s horse. Now it was time to decide what to do with them.
“Since we began this process last fall, we have invited comment from the entire VMI alumni community and the public, and we have gotten it in spades,” the committee’s chairman, Richard Hines V, began. “It runs the gamut from ‘pull out the eraser’ to ‘if you move anything, you are canceling the culture of VMI.’ ” An eloquent, bowtied trial lawyer whose first ancestor graduated from the institute in 1864, a century before he attended, Hines said the committee’s mission was to create “an inviting and a neutral landscape.”
A nuanced discussion of the interplay between past and present ensued. If Jackson was unfit to be honored with a statue, should his name also come off the arch behind it? Was there any way to “recontextualize” or move the 21-ft.-high painting of the New Market cadets charging into battle that greets visitors to Jackson Memorial Hall? Could the bronze statue of Virginia Mourning Her Dead be reoriented to honor all VMI’s war dead, not just those who fought at New Market?
S. Waite Rawls III, a 1970 VMI grad and former president of the Museum of the Confederacy, argued the displays were sending the wrong message. A first-time visitor would likely be confronted with the massive battle mural, with the result that “the first message they get is, VMI’s memorializing a bunch of damn Confederates,” he said. But he also cautioned the committee against “erasing” history, and wondered if they could find a new way to recognize Jackson’s military prowess, separate from the cause he fought for.
The threat of backlash hung over the discussion, as if the inertial force of collective nostalgia were itself a member of the committee. The alumni representative, Anthony Moore, a Black man, warned that donations could be imperiled. “If we go in and whitewash everything to do with the Confederacy, we’re going to lose a lot of support,” he said. “From the alumni perspective, the less we can change, the better.”
Midway through the meeting, Wins, the institute’s new superintendent, weighed in. A retired Army general with a quietly commanding air, Wins is regularly derided on alumni message boards as a Marxist and affirmative-action hire. In interviews, Wins told me that he didn’t personally experience racism at VMI but that he believes the Black cadets who have complained and is committed to changing the school’s atmosphere.
“In my time as a cadet, there was not a particular emphasis on Stonewall Jackson as a historical figure,” Wins said. Jackson graduated from West Point, he noted, yet there are no tributes to him there. When Wins himself was a rat, a white cadet quietly advised him he could direct his salute at the flag instead of the Jackson statue. “Everything we did, from saluting to walking through the arch, was about tradition,” Wins told the group. “I would ask, how much of this is about tradition, vs. history?”
Over nearly six hours, committee members both white and Black referenced the ways their perspectives had changed over time. Lester Johnson Jr., a Black member of the institute’s board, said he hadn’t paid much attention to things like statues when he was a cadet, but his eyes had been opened to their significance. “Now, with what I’m learning, I really struggle,” he said. “I just don’t understand the veneration.” For all the talk about the New Market cadets exemplifying valor and sacrifice, he said, as a Black man, he was never able to see them as anything but Confederate soldiers.
VMI’s board voted in May to strip Jackson’s name from the mantra adorning the barracks.
Jared Soares for TIME
The awakening has been made up of millions of such tiny epiphanies: the history we weren’t taught, the horrors we weren’t meant to consider. In my conversations with dozens of VMI cadets, alumni, officials and parents, nearly every one described an evolving perspective on race in recent years. Like Shah Rahman, they’d formed their worldview and sallied confidently forth—until something came along to upend it. That is why the stakes of this fight are so high for all involved: myths like the Lost Cause can only survive if they are handed down from one generation to the next.
But progress is often divisive, and rarely comes without sacrifice. In 1965, a 26-year-old VMI graduate named Jonathan Daniels traveled to Alabama to join the cause of civil rights. A white New Hampshire native who was studying to be an Episcopal priest, Daniels had just been released from jail when he and two Black girls were confronted by a white man with a gun. The man pointed his shotgun at 17-year-old Ruby Sales. Daniels pushed her down, threw himself in front of the blast and was instantly killed.
The late Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis later said it was Daniels’ selflessness that inspired him to activism. Martin Luther King Jr. called it “one of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry.” Daniels has been sainted and designated as a martyr by the Episcopal Church. At VMI, there is an award named for him, as well as a courtyard on the back side of the barracks. They are recent additions, and easy to miss, unlike the Confederate icons that immediately greet visitors.
At the committee meeting, members debated how better to honor Daniels, whose sacrifice they compared to that of the New Market cadets. Keith Gibson, VMI’s museum director, said he’d heard nothing about Daniels when he was a cadet in the 1970s. But recently, Gibson said, he had traveled to Alabama and retraced Daniels’ path, from the jail, to the concrete block that absorbed his blood, to his grave. Gibson was moved to tears as he recounted the experience of praying over the site where Daniels gave his life for the cause of racial equality.
Gibson has spent his entire career at the institute. He is the author of the school’s official history. Alums from the 1990s recall him roaming campus in a Confederate uniform (though Gibson denies this) and presiding over the burial of Jackson’s horse. But as he talked about Daniels’ legacy, he sounded positively, well, woke. Stokely Carmichael, who was in jail with Daniels, tried to warn the young seminarian, but Daniels was undeterred, Gibson told the committee. Like a soldier going into battle, he may not have known he would be killed, but he knew he was putting himself in danger.
The old white man’s voice shook with emotion. “There’s the heroism. There’s the courage,” Gibson said. “The work is still under way that Jonathan Daniels was involved in, and it falls to us.” We are all on a journey, each at his own pace.