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Black alumni of VMI want Stonewall Jackson's statue removed, but the school refuses

In a 1997 photo, Little Sorrel, Stonewall Jackson's horse, is interred in front of Jackson's statue at VMI.

NANCY ANDREWS/THE WASHINGTON POST

By IAN SHAPIRA | The Washington Post | Published: September 10, 2020

Kaleb Tucker graduated from the Virginia Military Institute in May, but he can't stop thinking about the indignities he endured as a Black man on the campus of the country's oldest state-supported military college. The VMI tradition that outraged him the most: forcing first-year cadets to salute a large statue of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson — a former VMI professor and enslaver of six people — that stands in the center of the campus, right in front of the student barracks.

Although VMI scrapped the custom of saluting Jackson a few years ago, his statue remains in its prominent perch, even as Confederate monuments come down across Virginia and the country.

Tucker, who was a starting cornerback on VMI's football team, launched a Change.org petition shortly after graduation, asking the school "to acknowledge the racism and black prejudice that still occurs at VMI" and "to tear down" the Jackson statue.

But the school — where Vice President Mike Pence, accompanied by Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, a VMI graduate, is scheduled to deliver a speech to cadets on Thursday — isn't budging. In late July, its superintendent, retired Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III released a seven-page letter on the school's future, saying he wouldn't remove any VMI statues or rename any campus buildings and praising Jackson as "a military genius" and a "staunch Christian."

"You feel downgraded as a person, belittled when you walk past the Jackson statue," said Tucker, a business data analyst in Hampton, Va., who tried to ignore the memorial but said he felt like a "coward" for doing so. "I'd be walking back happy from lunch and then I'd go past this statue of a slavemaster, and suddenly I was just like, 'Wow, I am really here.' I was disappointed in myself, but I couldn't do anything about it. I was forced to live this reality."

The military college in Lexington, Va., established in 1839, takes pride in its history, especially its role in the Civil War. Near the Jackson statue on the campus's Parade Ground is another called "Virginia Mourning Her Dead," a seven-foot-high figure of a classical woman cast in bronze. Its foundation holds the remains of several VMI cadets killed at the Battle of New Market, Va., on May 15, 1864.

The battle, which the Confederacy won and included the participation of more than 250 VMI cadets, holds a central place in the school's mythology and traditions. At the beginning of each academic year, new students — who at VMI are called "Rats" — would be transported to New Market, about 80 miles north of Lexington, where they would take their "Cadet Oath" and reenact the Confederates' charge across the battlefield to earn their shoulder boards. In his July letter to the VMI community, Peay announced that the Cadet Oath would now be administered on campus. In an interview with The Washington Post, a VMI spokesman, Col. Bill Wyatt, said that cadets will no longer have to charge across the battlefield but that they will still travel to the site later in the school year to learn about its history.

VMI was the last public college in Virginia to integrate, admitting Black students in 1968. Today about 8 percent of the college's 1,700 students are African American.

One African American graduate who always felt offended by the college's racist traditions is Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, a 2003 VMI graduate who is running for governor. (Virginia's current governor, Democrat Ralph Northam, is also a graduate of VMI.)

Carroll Foy was proud to be a member of the school's third class that included women, she said. But when her first-year roommate tried to hang a Confederate flag in her dorm room, she immediately stopped her and explained why the image was hurtful. Whenever she had to walk past the Jackson statue as a "Rat," she chose not to salute and instead turned her gaze in a slightly different direction, toward the adjacent American flag. And when she served as the president of the school's multicultural club, she led a boycott against the requirement that cadets charge across the New Market battlefield.

"They were asking us to commemorate people on the wrong side of history and to celebrate people who wanted African Americans in bondage, raped and enslaved," Carroll Foy said. She said that she was constantly told Jackson and other Civil War celebrations at the school were simply part of the campus's "heritage."

"The problem is that Black Americans think that heritage is full of hate," she said. "We don't think you should celebrate defenders of slavery."

Like other alumni campaigning against the Jackson statue, Carroll Foy says it should be carted off from its central location and taken away from campus or to a museum on the grounds. She said she appreciated some of Peay's initiatives outlined in his July letter, such as intensifying the recruitment of faculty members and students from marginalized backgrounds. But she said she doesn't understand why he or the school's Board of Visitors, which appoints the superintendent and oversees the school's budget, will not remove the Jackson statue.

John "Bill" Boland, president of the VMI board, declined an interview request.

Of the 17 members, three are Black and two are women. In a brief interview, Lester Johnson Jr., a Black board member who graduated in the Class of 1995, declined to address the statue controversy and said he wanted to reserve his comments for a Sept. 15 board meeting.

"From what I understand, this is an ongoing conversation. Nothing's been settled yet," said Johnson, co-owner of Mama J's in Richmond. "I've been preparing for months for this meeting. Generally speaking, people should practice equality and empathy."

Several other board members reached by The Post declined to comment.

The effort to eject the Jackson statue from the Parade Ground began in June with Tucker's Change.org petition, which has netted more than 1,400 signatures and has triggered a wave of essays and social media furor among alumni. Shortly after Tucker's petition launched, Wyatt, the VMI spokesman, released a statement saying the school was committed to improving the experiences of minority cadets and creating an "equitable institution beyond reproach."

But Tucker's petition also spawned a counterpetition by Jeremy Sanders, a Class of 2015 graduate and Army captain based in Colorado who complained that the "core" of the school was "under attack by those who seek to destroy these noble ideas that have made VMI cadets an 'honor to their country and state.'"

"Yes, Jackson owned six slaves. No, he was not a perfect man, however he must be judged through the context of his age. To judge him through a 21st century lens is unjust," the petition says, adding, "Removing the statue of Jackson is akin to such sacrilegious acts and is an attempt to erase our history."

Sanders's petition has over 5,100 signatures. In a brief text-message exchange Wednesday night with The Post, Sanders declined to identify his race, saying: "I'm an American. The content of my character and my ideas are not dependent on the amount [of] melanin in my skin."

Later in June, a White graduate, retired Marine Lt. Col. George "Donnie" Hasseltine, wrote a viral essay on Medium proposing that the Jackson statue be moved to another place, such as the campus museum. A "bolder" step, he said, would be to put the Jackson statue at the Lexington cemetery where he is buried, or at the Chancellorsville, Va., battlefield where he was accidentally shot in the left arm and right hand by a soldier or soldiers from a North Carolina regiment. Jackson's left arm was amputated, and after developing pneumonia, he died May 10, 1863.

By July, Hasseltine joined with three other alumni — Mike Purdy, a lawyer for Google; Conor Powell, a freelance journalist; and Shah Rahman, a civil engineer in Texas — and published an online letter and petition asking the Board of Visitors to form a racially diverse commission of alumni and cadets to examine the school's traditions, buildings and monuments and determine which adhere to VMI's values.

But when Powell posted a clip from a TV interview on his LinkedIn page, he and Purdy got blowback. "Since when is politically correct change the VMI way?" asked Gene Rice, a White 1974 VMI graduate who is a program manager for AT&T Global Business.

In a letter to the foursome in mid-July, Boland, the president of the VMI board, rejected their request, saying oversight over the school was their job and not anyone else's.

Rahman, who graduated in 1997, said he and other VMI alumni gathered for a 2018 fundraiser in Frisco, Texas, that Peay wanted to make assurances about the campus's commitment to its Confederate monuments.

"He said, 'Those statues are not going to come down under my watch,'" Rahman recalled.

Setting aside the issue of the fact that Jackson owned enslaved people and helped lead the Confederate army, it's not clear why — from an educational standpoint — the school would want to lionize him. According to VMI's own history of Jackson's time as a professor, the man was a dud.

"Unfortunately, Major Jackson . . . was a mediocre teacher — although highly intelligent, he could not convey the concepts to students," VMI's website says. "This inability, along with his humorless demeanor, soon branded Jackson as an unpopular faculty member, one who was the target of many pranks."