Northam orders investigation into VMI after Black cadets speak out about ‘relentless racism’ in Post story

Virginia

LEXINGTON, Va. (AP) — State officials have ordered an outside investigation into the Virginia Military Institute following a report in The Washington Post that described Black cadets and alumni facing “relentless racism.”

Gov. Ralph Northam co-wrote a letter Monday with other state officials and lawmakers to the state-supported school’s Board of Visitors expressing “deep concerns about the clear and appalling culture of ongoing structural racism” at VMI. The letter said the state will fund an independent probe into the school’s culture, policies, practices and equity in disciplinary procedures, the Post reported.

In response, the president of VMI’s Board of Visitors wrote in a letter Tuesday that the school would welcome a review and pledged its full cooperation.

“However, systemic racism does not exist here and a fair and independent review will find that to be true,” John William Boland wrote in the letter, which a school spokesman provided to The Associated Press.

State officials ordered the investigation after the newspaper published a weekend story that described an “atmosphere of hostility and cultural insensitivity” at the nation’s oldest state-supported military college. The story described incidents such as lynching threats and a white professor reminiscing in class about her father’s Ku Klux Klan membership.

The Roanoke Times also reported on Black alumni speaking out about racism at the school months ago.

Boland wrote that several of the incidents detailed in the Post’s story were many years old and that they “had more to do with an individual’s lapse of judgment than they do with the culture of the Institute.”

“Each one, as is the case with any allegation of racism or discrimination, was investigated thoroughly and appropriate action was meted out in a timely fashion,” he said in the letter.

The Post’s reporting cited interviews with more than a dozen current and former students of color.

Among them was William Bunton, a Black senior, who told the paper: “I wake up every day wondering, ‘Why am I still here?’”

Bunton said that after he and another Black student boycotted a September speech by Vice President Pence, they were punished with three weeks of confinement on campus, demerits and multiple hours of detention.

Debate has swirled recently among alumni of VMI, which was founded in Lexington in 1839, about how its ties to the Confederacy should be memorialized, the Roanoke Times has reported. The school announced earlier this year that it had no plans to take down its Confederate monuments, but would be changing some of its longstanding traditions.

Multiple buildings on the campus are named for Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson as well as other alumni and faculty who fought for the Confederacy. A statue of Jackson also stands in front of the barracks. Until a few years ago, freshman were required to salute it, the Post reported.

Among the changes announced by VMI’s superintendent, retired Army Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, in July were: reorienting flagpoles surrounding the Jackson statue and centering them at the new barracks, and relocating an oath ceremony from a battlefield where 10 VMI cadets died fighting for the Confederacy to school grounds.

In addition to Northam, who is a VMI graduate, co-signers of the Monday letter included Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax; Attorney General Mark Herring and top Democratic legislative leaders.

On Thursday, the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP released a statement in support of the independent investigation.

“The Virginia State Conference (VSC) of the NAACP supports the independent Investigation called by Governor Ralph Northam following reports of an “atmosphere of hostility and cultural insensitivity” by Black cadets. As the Commonwealth is grappling with and addressing issues of racism, so must our educational institutions.

“To turn a blind eye and not acknowledge systemic racism within our educational institutions is akin to encouraging and maintaining systems that keep Black people, communities of color and other marginalized communities from achieving academic success.

“As students, the Virginia State Conference Youth and College Executive Committee stands in solidarity with VMI Black cadets. This independent investigation should provide information that will achieve a safe and comfortable learning environment that all students deserve and will not diminish their identity.

“The VSC will monitor the investigation into VMI and actions that will be taken to address its findings.”

Virginia State Conference of the NAACP

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