Peay: Stonewall Should Stand

Peay: Stonewall Should Stand

VIRGINIA MOURNING HER DEAD was created by sculptor Moses Ezekiel to honor the VMI cadets killed in the Battle of New Market, six of whom are buried behind the statue. The sculpture was dedicated in 1903. (Darryl Woodson photo)

Peay: Stonewall Should Stand

WHILE THE STATUE of Confederate General and pre-Civil War VMI professor Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson would remain in front of Old Barracks (to the right of this photo) under Superintendent J.H. Binford Peay III’s plan, the large flagpoles for the U.S. and Virginia flags on either side of the statue would be recentered on New Barracks (whose entranceway is at right), signaling “VMI’s move to the future.” New Barracks was completed in 1949, while Third Barracks (seen at far left) opened in 2009. (Darryl Woodson photo)

New Market Focus Changing, New Course Planned At VMI

Virginia Military Institute is planning multiple measures to combat racism but removal of statues and renaming buildings are not among the steps being contemplated.

“The principles on which VMI has stood - fairness, honor, integrity, respect, civility and accountability - continue to be the backbone of who we are,” wrote Superintendent Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III in a lengthy letter to the VMI community last Wednesday, July 29. “We strive to advance these traits in society and correct inequalities that we see occur. We are living in a unique time in the history of our country that has undoubtedly affected each of us in different ways.

“First and foremost, I believe we all agree we want to erase any hint of racism at VMI, in our communities, and in our country. It is also very clear that the VMI community consists of passionate individuals with deeply held beliefs. We have spent considerable waking hours trying to make sense of the turmoil and pain we have seen nationally. Many of you across the spectrum of our graduates have personally contacted me and expressed how this affects the operations of VMI today and concerns for the future.”

Among those who have contacted Peay in the wake of national and local protests against racism following the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police are, he wrote, African American cadets and alumni who have “expressed that parts of the VMI experience did not live up to the standards that it should have, and I am committed to addressing and fixing any areas of racial inequality at our school. The invaluable discussions I have had with many of you have caused me to reflect on the challenges and resiliency seen throughout the history of the Institute.”

As a result of conversations Peay and other VMI leaders have had with alumni, cadets, faculty and staff, the institute, said the superintendent, is undertaking changes to some longstanding traditions, incorporating a broader perspective into its teaching of U.S. and Virginia history and making a concerted effort to recruit more faculty and cadets of color.

VMI is discontinuing the practice of having cadets reenact the charge across the New Market battlefield in commemoration of cadets who fought on behalf of the Confederacy during the Civil War. The cadet oath administered to freshmen will no longer be held at New Market but instead, be administered at VMI. The focus of New Market Day on May 15 will be broadened to honor all VMI alumni who have died in combat – not just those who died at New Market. The parade is being renamed the “VMI Memorial Parade” and will be held on the post’s parade ground.

Although the statue of Confederate Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson in front of Old Barracks is to remain in place, the tall flag poles on the parade ground on either side of the statue will be re-centered on the New Barracks, changing the focus from the Jackson statue and Old Barracks.

Plans are in the works, wrote Peay, to place a greater emphasis on the Jonathan Daniels Courtyard on post that pays tribute to the VMI alumnus and Civil Rights martyr killed in 1965 while trying to register African Americans to vote in Alabama. “… we will move to accentuate Daniels Courtyard and further contextualize and promote his life example for all to learn.”

The “Rat Bible,” a guide to VMI life that all cadets are required to know, is to be updated next year. “In 2021 we will adjust portions of the Rat Bible to bring it into a more modern age in terms of important and lifelong information required to be learned by all first-year cadets.”

VMI is introducing a new required course, “American Civic Experience,” that is to “emphasize American history and civics within the context historically of national and world events, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and slavery.” Also, two Virginia history courses – one dealing with events prior to 1865 and another that focuses on Reconstruction to the present time, are being reviewed “to ensure that they are taught with the proper context and from multiple perspectives.”

Peay notes that African Americans, who first matriculated at VMI in 1968, have excelled in academics and leadership positions while at the institute and then gone onto successful careers. He called on VMI’s alumni to help with recruiting of “marginalized youth” and to help with seeking out “a more diverse faculty and staff.”

Addressing a controversial issue that has been brought up recently, Peay wrote, “We do not currently intend to remove any VMI statues or rename any VMI buildings. Rather, in the future we will emphasize recognition of leaders from the Institute’s second century. We will place unvarnished context on the value and lessons to be learned from the Institute’s rich heritage, while being mindful of the nation’s challenges and sensitivities to being fair and inclusive to all.”

In the weeks after Floyd’s death in which the subject of racism in America was being confronted, several African American alumni of VMI took to social media to say they had experienced incidents of racism at VMI. They spoke of white cadets in black face and other classmates using the N-word. They pointed out that until just a few years ago, cadets were punished if they didn’t salute the statue of Confederate icon Jackson.

One of those alumni, a recent graduate, circulated a petition on Facebook calling for the statue of Jackson to be taken down. A counter-petition by other alumni opposing the removal of Jackson’s statue soon followed. Last month, a letter from alumni was sent to VMI’s leadership asking that a commission be formed to examine and reassess VMI’s traditions, monuments and building names.

In last week’s letter, Peay did not allude to the idea for a commission. He did write that VMI’s plans to combat racism would be discussed by the institute’s board of visitors at its next meeting in September.

Editor’s note: The full text of Superintendent Peay’s letter can be found on The News-Gazette’s website.

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