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Updates on the Investigation Into VMI Racism Complaints

A line of canons at the entrance to the barracks at Virginia Military Institute Wednesday July 15, 2020, in Lexington, Va. The school founded in 1839, is the oldest state-supported military college in the United States. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Earlier this week, the General Assembly agreed to spend $1 million on an investigation into the practices and traditions at Virginia Military Institute. News reports uncovered stories of Black cadets and alumni who say they experienced racism from faculty and other cadets.

Whittney Evans summarized the story in a conversation with Sara McCloskey, VPM's newscasts editor.

This transcript has been lightly edited.

McCloskey: Whittney, let’s start from the beginning. How did these allegations of racism surface?

Evans: Well the general assembly’s recent actions and a high profile VMI resignation would have you believe this is a brand new issue. The situation was thrust into the national spotlight when the Washington Post picked up the story in mid-October. 

But actually, Alumni were on social media calling for change long before that. The Roanoke Times published a story about this in early June. And a recent graduate started a petition to remove the statue of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson. It has about 1600 signatures today. 

VMI graduate Keniya Lee submitted a complaint about a white professor who she says spoke, sort of wistfully in class about her family’s connection to the Ku Klux Klan. Lee told me last month she doesn’t actually think VMI is a bad place. She said, “It just needs a structural change for people like myself to succeed. So I’m willing to do whatever and take that stand and be brave enough for the people after me.”

McCloskey: How did VMI officials react to all this?

Evans: They said they were disappointed that these students and former students had these experiences. 

The Superintendent at the time, J.H. Binford Peay released a really sort of -- heartened statement -- saying, quote “the Institute must and will self-reflect and be open to growth and greater understanding of the inequalities and prejudices that still exist today.”

And then in late July, General Peay announced some steps the school would take to try and address the concerns. They included reviewing history courses to make sure they are taught in the proper context and from different perspectives. Cadets are also now required to take a new class called “American Civic Experience” that explores issues like racial injustice and slavery. 

VMI leaders also promised to change some historic symbols on campus -- The Cadet Oath ceremony, for example, would no longer involve a sort of reenactment of a Civil War battle that VMI cadets fought on behalf of the confederacy. 

McCloskey: So this brings us to the Washington Post story published in mid-October. What kind of impact did that story have?

Evans: It really seemed to wake up state leaders to the experiences that Black cadets are reporting. 

A couple of days after the story was published, Governor Ralph Northam and other state leaders called for an independent investigation into the complaints. 

Northam expressed his disappointment, saying in so many words that it’s clear that the school isn’t fixing the problem on its own. 

In a letter to the VMI Board of Visitors, the governor and a handful of other state officials called out VMI for a quote “clear and appalling culture of ongoing structural racism”. 

General Peay resigned under pressure from Northam who is a VMI graduate himself.  

And the House and Senate amended the state budget to pay for the investigation. While many republicans opposed the amendment, Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, a VMI graduate, voted for it. Norment said, “We need to stop hyperventilating. We need to allow this investigation to move forward, and for the results to come out and be made public.”

But Norment also called out the governor and other democratic state leaders for rushing to judgement -- especially considering their own battles with accusations of racism and sexual misconduct. He addressed Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax’, who previously called rape allegations against him a “media lynching," saying, “And I suggest Mr. President, taking some comments that you made in 2019, we cannot let the media lynch VMI.”

McCloskey: That’s a strong comparison, given the racial nature of the investigation. What are some of the things you’ll be keeping track of with this story -- Whittney? What’s next? 

Evans: What’s next is we wait and see where this investigation goes. VMI officials say they welcome the probe and have pledged their full cooperation, but they maintain that the reviews won’t find anything alarming. And that the incidents Black cadets reported were handled individually and don’t necessarily represent the culture of the school. That investigation is due at the end of the year. 

It’s still unclear how much of this review will be made public, and what it will mean for the institution moving forward. 

McCloskey: Thank you Whittney for looking into this. 

Evans: You’re welcome.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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