Black alumni of Virginia Military Institute are speaking out against racism at their alma mater, asking the state-funded military school to acknowledge that racism exists among the ranks and to make changes, starting with the removal of the statue of Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson that sits in front of the barracks.
A recent graduate started a petition for the statue’s removal on June 4. The petition also asks VMI to “acknowledge the racism and black prejudice that still occurs.” The petition had more than 500 signatures within 24 hours and by Friday had nearly 800 signatures.
Former cadets also took to social media this month to recount their experiences of racism at VMI, which until recent years included being made to salute the Jackson statue. Jackson, who taught at VMI before leaving to fight as a Confederate general in the Civil War, casts a long shadow. In interviews, alumni and former staff members recounted incidents that made them feel like VMI has not addressed racism appropriately.
“I don’t consider the administration or anything like that racist, but the school is built upon being racist, which gives an opportunity for the people that are racist at VMI to slip between the cracks and kind of hide,” said Tyriuq Trotman, 23, who graduated in May.
In a statement, VMI spokesman Col. Bill Wyatt acknowledged that VMI leadership saw black alumni’s social media activity, and “we are disappointed to learn that their experiences have fallen short of our standards.”
“We are committed to improving these experiences for current and future cadets and look forward to working with recent alumni, current cadets, and other stakeholders on making VMI an equitable institution beyond reproach,” the statement said. “Racism and acts of discrimination have no place at VMI. These concepts are antithetical to the values of honor, integrity, civility, respect, and accountability upon which the Virginia Military Institute was founded.”
Trotman began to speak out on Facebook and Twitter in the wake of George Floyd’s death after he became frustrated that VMI remained silent, unlike other schools that made public statements. Trotman challenged VMI to take action.
“You all say you see everyone equal and that you fight for what’s right,” he wrote on Facebook. “BUT I DO NOT SEE IT.”
Other black former cadets also began to speak out online about their experiences. At least two former white faculty and staff members also joined in, echoing their former students.
Superintendent J.H. Binford Peay III released a statement June 4, writing that VMI “must and will self-reflect and be open to growth and greater understanding of the inequalities and prejudices that still exist today. It is also time to move forward together in unity. The Virginia Military Institute is committed to these ends in a purposeful way.”
“In 2003, after the admission of women to VMI, we recognized long before the nation that ‘civility’ was a growing and concerned major deficiency in our Corps of Cadets and society.” Peay wrote. “In my view we were ahead of the nation in addressing that challenge; we made major strides and yet we have much more to do. That is my job now, as before, to advance that work. I intend to do just that.”
On the evening after Peay released a statement, class of 2020 graduate Kaleb Tucker, 21, started a petition to remove the statue of Jackson, who owned six enslaved people while living in Lexington. Tucker also began a Twitter thread sharing his experiences at VMI and encouraging others to speak out.
Soon, black former cadets began to chime in with stories: being punished for not saluting the Jackson statue; white cadets wearing blackface; the pain of charging across the New Market battlefield; white students using the N-word; getting spit in the face.
“There’s a no tolerance policy for so much at VMI, and racism is not one of those,” Tucker said in an interview on Monday.
‘It kind of makes me feel small’
VMI was built on a foundation of racism, Trotman said, an institution created during a time when black Americans were still enslaved and only white males could attend. Its history includes Confederate symbols like Jackson, the Confederate battle flag and “Dixie,” the latter of which was stopped being playing at VMI-sponsored events in the 1970s, according to Wyatt. Use of the Confederate flag stopped in the early 1990s, Wyatt said.
Freshmen — known at VMI as “rats” — had to salute the Jackson statue until several years ago. Tucker recalls saluting the statue as a rat in 2016 and provided a photo and video of another alumnus’ handbook dated 2015 that states “as a rat you will salute Jackson each time you leave the arch.”
Wyatt initially claimed that tradition ceased a decade ago before correcting himself after a reporter pressed him on the matter, saying the change was actually implemented in 2015 and that the freshman handbook was printed before the decision was finalized.
Tucker wonders why VMI still has the Jackson statue.
“You don’t see Germany still talking about Hitler because they know what happened was wrong,” he said.
The first black cadets enrolled at VMI in 1968, and women enrolled in 1997. About 6% of VMI’s 1,700 cadets are black, according to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. That’s the same figure as in 2000, The Roanoke Times previously reported.
The percentage of nonwhite cadets has grown to 23%, Wyatt said, increasing by 10% over the last decade. Approximately 12.5% of faculty are nonwhite, and 3% of faculty are black, according to Wyatt.
Last year, it became public that Gov. Ralph Northam’s nickname in the 1981 yearbook was “Coonman.” State Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, also was criticized for his role as managing editor of a 1968 VMI yearbook filled with slurs and pictures of cadets in black face. Northam denied knowing why his friends gave him the nickname, and Norment condemned the photos in his yearbook, saying that he supported integration.
Through the 2010s, too, VMI was in the news every so often for racist and inappropriate cadet behavior: In 2012, The Washington Post reported on sexist and racist anonymous online postings from the military college. In 2017, cadets used President Donald Trump’s promised border wall as inspiration, including a racist slur.
Every American has the responsibility to create change, Trotman said; for him, that means improving his alma mater, which he also tried to do while a cadet.
During his time at VMI, Trotman was head of the black student organization, the Promaji Club, and was involved with the Cadet Equity Association, which exists to provide education and investigate sexual harassment and discrimination.
He and other cadets proposed a new cadet training program focused on racism and discrimination “so ignorance can no longer be an excuse.” Its development will resume in the fall after interruption from the coronavirus pandemic, Wyatt said.
Trotman and Tucker, who both played football for the school, each said he received a good education at VMI but also felt uncomfortable in his own skin. Tucker said he felt the need to keep his head down and avoid speaking out.
Trotman said he believes VMI has made “small steps in the right direction, but we’re to the day and age now where these steps need to come a lot faster and they need to be a lot bigger.”
He said traditions should at least be reformed and made optional, like rats charging across the New Market battlefield in memory of 10 cadets who died fighting for the Confederacy.
“Because as an African-American male, me coming to VMI as a freshman, playing my first college football game, getting back to VMI around 3 or 4 a.m., only to have to wake up at 6 a.m. to go to New Market and reenact the New Market battle doesn’t really sit right with me,” Trotman said. “It kind of makes me feel small.”
Tucker wants that tradition to be canceled altogether.
“There’s so many more traditions than just the Battle of New Market,” he said. “VMI will still be a great school if I didn’t have to run across the field reenacting people that fought for the Confederacy.”
Deidre Garriott, a former assistant professor of rhetoric at VMI from 2014 to 2019 who spoke out recently on social media, agrees with her former cadets’ assessments, she wrote in a lengthy statement to The Roanoke Times about racism she witnessed. Memory is not objective, she said. “We select memory, and in doing so, we select and shape reality,” she wrote, adding that reality is erased when people choose to put men like Jackson on “literal pedestals.”
Trotman said that when he hears Jackson’s name and sees his statue, “I just think of my ancestors being oppressed.” With Northam’s order to take down Richmond’s statue of Robert E. Lee, “we felt like it’s time for us to make a stride for that to happen at VMI as well,” Trotman said.
After the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VMI’s governing board of visitors considered removing the Jackson statue but decided to keep it standing. At the time, Peay said the school would consider contextualizing the monument. Wyatt said VMI has since created a brochure for “a number of statues and displays on Post that were in need of context.”
‘Too afraid of the system’
Garriott said in her statement that she affirms the stories posted on social media. She witnessed a “hostile environment” toward people of color, especially black cadets, LGBTQ cadets and non-Christian cadets. She said it’s “critical that we believe these current and former cadets.”
Former VMI Assistant Athletic Director for Academics Services and Compliance J.B. Weber said he also witnessed institutional racism at VMI. Last week, he tweeted a public apology to his former cadets, writing that he “saw racism happening before my eyes and was too afraid of the system to speak.” He recalled often calling his wife “in tears” to share the racism he witnessed.
Weber said football staff attempted to conceal Lexington’s Confederate traditions during his time at VMI from 2014 to 2017. A key football recruiting weekend was the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, the same weekend as Lee-Jackson Day, Weber said in an interview Monday.
He specifically remembers football staff in 2015 discussing how to keep the recruits, many of whom were black, away from downtown Lexington during the annual parades that involve Confederate flags and uniforms.
Wyatt said he could not comment on that incident because he was unable to find anyone who recalled those conversations, but he said VMI is “in no way affiliated with those events or the organizations that conduct them.”
He acknowledged that the celebration of Lee and Jackson — typically involving parades, Civil War period uniforms and costumes and many Confederate battle flags — are offensive to black cadets and recruits, and also said they were offensive to the institution.
“Of course, the flaggers are offensive to our African American cadets and recruits. They are offensive to the Institution,” Wyatt wrote in an email. “We have precious little time to give our athletic recruits an honest understanding of what life is like at VMI. I’m not sure why anyone would expect us to include an offensive rally in their schedule?”
Weber spent a lot of time with his cadet-athletes and developed genuine relationships with them. When they brought up concerns about how they were treated because of being black, Weber told them it was better to work with the system. He now regrets saying that.
Weber didn’t speak out at the time because he worried about retaliation. He’s speaking out now not because he has an ax to grind but because he feels he owes it to his former cadet-athletes. His role at VMI brought him professional opportunities, he said, and he feels he profited off the cadets’ hard work.
Wyatt said VMI has worked to leave behind traditions that “rightly have no place in our society today,” adding that VMI is committed to continuing that work.
Perhaps ironically, Weber noted, these former cadets who are now speaking up are exactly the type of informed citizens VMI talks about creating.
“They are ethical leaders,” he said. “But because they are what VMI seeks to produce, they feel obligated to speak out against VMI.”