The Virginia Military Institute’s superintendent resigned Monday, a week after Virginia’s governor ordered an independent investigation into allegations of systemic racism at the state-supported military college.
Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, 80, who has led the school since 2003, said in his resignation letter that the staff of Gov. Ralph Northam and members of the Virginia Legislature had “lost confidence in my leadership” and had asked him Friday to resign.
The governor said in a statement Monday that change was overdue at VMI. “Diversity is a fundamental commitment,” he said. “Without this recognition, VMI cannot properly educate future citizen-soldiers nor live up to its values of honor, character and service.”
Peay, a retired four-star Army general, led the 181-year-old school in Lexington, Virginia, through a stormy reexamination of its past and its culture, which for generations venerated Confederate leaders and slave owners. Buildings on campus are named for them, and freshmen have been required to salute a statue of Stonewall Jackson, the Confederate general, who taught at the school before the Civil War.
The publicly funded college on a fortresslike campus in rural Virginia has long associated itself with the Confederate cause. In 1864 the entire cadet corps took up arms against the Union and fought in the Battle of New Market, a Confederate victory in the Shenandoah Valley. The school mounts annual reenactments of the battle and commemorates those who died there with a memorial that first-year students must attend.
Amid the school’s monuments to white supremacy, some students and alumni say, a culture of bigotry has been tolerated and acts of racism swept under the rug.
“You hear these racist things, and it makes you feel small, and then you feel even smaller when the school doesn’t seem to do anything about it,” said Tyriuq Trotman, who led the school’s minority club before he graduated in 2020.
As a student, Trotman said, he witnessed a sophomore threatening to lynch a Black freshman and use his body as a punching bag. The sophomore was suspended but not expelled, he said, leaving students to wonder why the school’s strict no-tolerance policy for misconduct did not extend to racist acts.
In another case, several cadets won the school’s Halloween costume contest in 2017 by dressing up as President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall and writing racial slurs on their costume. Far from punishing the students, the commandant in charge of cadets posed for a photo with them.
Kaleb Tucker, another 2020 graduate, said that as a Black cadet, it was painful to hear racist comments and to have to salute the statue of Jackson. Many of his Black friends grew disheartened and transferred out of VMI, he said. Others in the student body, which is about 8% Black, “kind of became numb to everything that was going on,” he said.
Over the summer, during nationwide protests over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, Tucker started an online petition to remove the Jackson statue. “We can learn about the history, but we don’t need to celebrate it,” he said. “You go to Germany, I don’t think you’ll see statues of Hitler.”
A number of other alumni also started calling on the college to break with its Confederate past. Peay announced efforts to update some of the school’s traditions, but he said in a letter that he would not rename buildings that honor Confederates and that the statue would remain, calling Jackson a “staunch Christian” and a “military genius.”
The Washington Post reported this month that Black students at the college continued to “endure relentless racism” and have been subjected to mock lynchings and other abuse.
In response, Northam, who graduated from the institute in 1981, said last week that he was ordering an independent investigation, saying he had “deep concerns about the clear and appalling culture of ongoing structural racism” at VMI.
John Boland, president of the school’s trustees, known as the Board of Visitors, wrote in a letter to the governor that “systemic racism does not exist here and a fair and independent review will find that to be true.” Boland praised Peay in a statement Monday and said the board accepted the general’s resignation “with deep regret.”
The superintendent’s sudden departure was caused, in part, by the VMI leadership’s failure to recognize how the South was changing or to keep pace with a broader reckoning across the region over its Confederate past, according to Mike Purdy, who graduated from the college in 1999 and now works for Google.
While other Southern universities, including the University of Virginia, have taken down Confederate monuments and formed commissions to investigate histories of racism, he said, the institute’s leaders, under pressure from conservative alumni, largely stayed silent.
“VMI did virtually nothing,” Purdy said. “Then this summer, the superintendent agreed to make changes, which should be applauded. But it was too late to catch up.”