Does Racism Still Reside At VMI?

The Stonewall Jackson statue at VMI.

By Peter Galuszka

On this blog, at least, there has been plenty of grief at the University of Virginia over controversies involving diversity. But over at Lexington, a town not far away, an even bigger battle involving the issue has been engaged.

Black students and alumni at the Virginia Military Institute, the state’s public military college, complain that the institution is involved in systemic racism that hasn’t gone away years after Blacks and women were finally allowed to enter.

Students complain that they are criticized and told to leave the school if they object to having white supremacist figures, such as Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, included in school emblems, hear classroom stories by a faculty member favoring the Ku Ku Klan and face social media insults decrying the color of their skin, according to The Washington Post.

Gov. Ralph Northam, a graduate of VMI, on Monday announced an investigation into racism at the school, whose storied history includes a movie by actor and former President Ronald Reagan. The School has graduated such military leaders as George C, Marshall, who headed the Army.

According to Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Woodbridge, one of the first African American women to graduate from VMI, said, “Let me be clear: racism and discrimination of any kind is unacceptable anywhere, most especially in the halls of a premier military institution,” according to the blog Blue Virginia. She has suggested seven corrective steps, including classes to expand diversity awareness. She is a Democratic gubernatorial candidate.

One irony of the VMI story is that the U.S. Military has been a leader in integrating the armed services long before a number of Southern states allowed integration. At VMI, Black cadets were not allowed until 1968 and it was years later before females were accepted and that was the result of a Supreme Court decision lead by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Students have complained about some of the school’s peculiar traditions in earlier days, such as paying homage to Stonewall Jackson when assembling and having a school play “Dixie” at marches. There have been social media statements that some students are to be lynched. Students and a faculty member allegedly took part in a skit in which they depicted Donald Trump’s Southern “wall” to keep out Hispanics. And, pictures of social events are chock-a-bloc of White people dressed in Black-face of a nature similar to what Northam was allegedly involved in as a medical student.

VMI and another state military school, the Citadel in South Carolina, have long been party of a Southern mystique combining male dominance, regional emotion and racism. The Citadel, for instance, has long been the subject of novels by the late South Carolina author, Pat Conroy. His best known Citadel work is “The Lords of Discipline.”

It seems that both places are very much stuck in the past.