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VMI votes to scrub Stonewall Jackson from buildings

Virginia Military Institute.

HEATHER ROUSSEAU FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

By IAN SHAPIRA | The Washington Post | Published: May 4, 2021

The Virginia Military Institute, which was pressured last year to remove a prominent statue of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson, took more steps to reduce its lingering tributes to the Civil War leader, a former professor at the college who enslaved six people.

In its most notable decision made Saturday, the college's Board of Visitors voted to erase Jackson's name as the author of a quotation mounted in bronze in the student barracks — a mantra that cadets and alumni memorize and that has been engraved into class rings: "You may be whatever you resolve to be."

The maxim, which was added to the barracks interior during the 1953-54 academic year, will remain. But the words "Stonewall Jackson," which sit under the quotation and imply that he wrote them, will be scrubbed.

Although Jackson apparently kept the phrase in a notebook of inspirational quotes, he did not come up with the saying. Two other men, William Alcott and the Rev. Joel Hawes, included the quotations in publications in 1834 and 1851, according to the college. A plaque attributing the remark to them will be installed in the barracks archway, and the sign will note that Jackson included the saying in his book of maxims.

The college's board also voted to strip Jackson as the namesake for the campus's memorial hall and one of the arches leading into the barracks.

The board said it will decide about the possible new names of the arch and memorial hall at its meeting in September.

The board's decision comes as the 182-year-old college has received public criticism in recent months from students and alumni who have said the Lexington, Va., campus suffers from systemic racism. After The Washington Post published a story in October chronicling a host of disturbing incidents in recent years at VMI, Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat and alumnus, ordered an independent investigation into the school.

Shortly after Northam's announcement, the college's longtime White superintendent resigned. Since, the college has been making swift changes: In November, the school appointed its first Black leader, retired Army Maj. Gen. Cedric Wins, who graduated from VMI in 1985, as its interim superintendent. The following month, the school removed a 108-year-old statue of Jackson that sat outside the student barracks and that students and alumni had been protesting. In April, the college's board appointed Wins as its full-time superintendent, the 15th in the school's history.

The college still has on its campus a large number of memorials and iconography linked to the Confederacy.

Two prominent visuals commemorate the college's cadets who fought and died for the South in the Battle of New Market on May 15, 1864.

One is a statue called "Virginia Mourning Her Dead," which depicts a female figure clad in chain mail resting her foot on a broken cannon, holding her head downward in sorrow and gripping a lance in her left hand. Many of the remains of the New Market cadets are buried in the foundation of the monument, which also bears the names of the cadets.

On Saturday, the Board voted to extend the monument's tribute to all cadets and alumni killed in combat. About 600 VMI cadets or alumni have been killed in the line of duty, according to college spokesman Bill Wyatt.

Another New Market tribute is a large oil painting depicting VMI cadets charging across the battlefield. The board on Saturday decided to keep it hanging in the memorial hall and to add context to the artwork with a display nearby.

As for Stonewall Jackson, the school has not gotten rid of him entirely.

According to the school's website, VMI gives out annual awards in his namesake: "Jackson-Hope" medals are presented annually to "the two most distinguished graduates of the Institute," and the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Award, which was established in 1957 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, is given to the "first standing graduate" in the physics curriculum.

Those awards may be altered. The college committee reviewing the school's Confederate iconography is just getting started, Wyatt said.

According to VMI's website, 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 student pranks."