Why Not A VMI Commission?

Why Not A VMI Commission?

THE STATUE of Confederate Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, a replica of a Charleston, W.Va., sculpture by Moses Ezekiel, has stood in front of Old Barracks since 1912. In front are cannon of the Cadet Battery used during the Civil War. (Darryl Woodson photo)

Change comes slowly to tradition-steeped Virginia Military Institute. It was the last of Virginia’s public colleges to become racially integrated when five African Americans matriculated at VMI in 1968. It took a decade-long legal fight that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court before VMI admitted its first women cadets in 1997.

A deliberative but inevitable process is being played out now as VMI’s leaders reflect on the institute’s nearly 200-year history and, in particular, its ties to the Confederacy and a cause to keep an entire race of people enslaved. Since becoming integrated 52 years ago, VMI has taken a piecemeal approach to casting off reminders of a racist past.

Traditions eliminated over the years have included the playing of Dixie at sporting events, the flying of the Confederate battle flag on post, a requirement that all cadets, including African Americans, salute the statue just outside the barracks of Confederate Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and salute Lee Chapel, the final resting place of Robert E. Lee, who was named commander of all the Confederate armies near the end of the Civil War.

Three years ago, following the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VMI Superintendent Gen. J.H. Binford Peay and Board of Visitors President William Boland issued the following joint statement: “Hate, bigotry and discrimination are wrong, do not represent the values of [VMI], and will always be addressed decisively. We will learn from the past and take the best from our predecessors in shaping our cadet citizen-soldiers for today and tomorrow.”

In a letter last week to the VMI community, Peay recalled that pronouncement and further stated a desire to “erase any hint of racism at VMI, in our communities and in our country.” In the wake of racial strife roiling the country following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, Peay said he’s had heartfelt discussions about race issues with VMI cadets, alumni, faculty and staff. He said he’d learned from African American cadets and alumni that parts of the VMI experience “did not live up to the standards that it should have.”

Peay said he’s “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.” He then outlined measures that were being taken to combat racism at VMI such as doing away with the tradition of having cadets reenact the Civil War charge across the New Market battlefield, broadening history lessons to include multiple perspectives and recruiting more faculty and cadets of color.

Peay also announced, “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.”

While Peay may have support from the board of visitors for his stated desire to not remove any statues or eliminate names of buildings of individuals associated with the Confederacy, we believe that a more formalized process of seeking input from the VMI community, including African American alumni and cadets, is in order.

VMI could take a cue from its neighbor, Washington and Lee University, in how to take a more inclusive approach to confronting a painful past. In the aftermath of the racially-charged violence in Charlottesville in 2017, W&L President Will Dudley formed the Commission on Institutional History and Community, a diverse 12-member panel of faculty, staff, students and alumni to “to lead us in an examination of how our history -- and the ways that we teach, discuss, and represent it -- shapes our community.”

The commission met over a period of eight months and came up with a list of recommendations for how to make W&L a more inclusive institution while candidly confronting and learning from its history. It has admittedly been a difficult process and not everyone has agreed with all of the recommendations, nor have all of them been implemented yet. Three years later, the process continues, and recent events have prompted a call for even more action, including a vote by a majority of faculty earlier this summer to rename W&L.

None of this is easy and Peay is to be commended for his thoughtful letter of last week that calls for many laudatory actions. We do believe, however, that formation of a commission of representatives of VMI’s diverse community is warranted and would carry more weight as the institute seeks to address these very important issues.

The News-Gazette

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