Leaders of Virginia Military Institute said Tuesday that the school will keep its Confederate statues and consider adding more historical context in the aftermath of last month’s violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville.
At a VMI board of visitors meeting Tuesday, VMI Superintendent J.H. Binford Peay III defended the school’s traditions while declaring that “there’s no place for discrimination” at the state-supported military college. The school, founded in Lexington before the outbreak of the Civil War, has continually evolved since it was racially integrated in 1968, Peay said.
Other vestiges of the school’s Confederate ties — such as battle flags, the playing of “Dixie” and cadet salutes to a statue of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson — already have been phased out, the superintendent said.
“We are a different school,” Peay told the board. “And we build on the strengths of our traditions, the right traditions, the right statues, the right ... ceremonies that we have to make our graduates stronger and better for a nation that needs to move to the future and advance in a right way. That’s my thinking, ladies and gentlemen. And I don’t think I’m being politically correct.”
Several Virginia localities, including Richmond, have sped up conversations about removing Confederate statues after the Aug. 12 rally in Charlottesville, where one anti-racism protester died as a coalition of white nationalist groups tried to hold a rally in support of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
The state’s top Democrats, including Gov. Terry McAuliffe, called for moving Confederate statues to museums, saying they have grown too divisive as symbols meant to venerate the Lost Cause.
McAuliffe also has said cities and counties should have the authority to decide what to do with their own monuments, though that power may be sharply limited by a state law designed to protect war memorials.
The statues at history-steeped VMI stood apart as a unique situation where the decision on taking down statues was up to a college’s governing board, not state or local elected officials. Like other higher education boards, VMI’s board is appointed by the governor.
VMI board of visitors President John William Boland said he and other board members “wholeheartedly agree” with the superintendent. Boland suggested adding a plaque to honor VMI cadets who fought on the Union side during the Civil War.
In a joint statement, Peay and Boland said the VMI board “endorses continuing to acknowledge all those who are part of the history of the institute.”
“We choose not to honor their weaknesses, but to recognize their strengths,” the statement said.
The events in Charlottesville pushed the debate over Confederate statues to the forefront of Virginia’s gubernatorial election. Republican Ed Gillespie, a political consultant and former chairman of the Republican National Committee, has said he thinks that statues should remain and be placed in historical context while stressing that monument decisions should be made locally. Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam, the Democratic nominee and a VMI graduate, has said he supports removing Confederate statues from prominent public places.
Tuesday’s announcement by VMI put Northam at odds with the alma mater he routinely references on the campaign trail. In a statement, Northam gave no indication he would press the issue at VMI if elected governor.
“As I have said before, I believe local communities, including the VMI community, need to make these decisions for themselves,” Northam said. “While I personally think that these statues belong in a museum with appropriate historical context, I respect the decision of the institute.”
The Gillespie campaign and other Republicans reacted to the VMI news by pointing to Northam’s previous pledge to do “everything” in his authority to remove statues at the state level.
“The decision by VMI’s board of visitors is consistent with Ed’s view that we should add historic context to monuments,” Gillespie spokesman David Abrams said. “Lieutenant Governor Northam has said he will do ‘all he can’ to remove statues at the state level, which clearly means that he would appoint board members who would reverse today’s decision.”
In addition to the statue of Jackson, who served as a VMI professor before the Civil War, the institute’s “Virginia Mourning Her Dead” statue honors the young VMI cadets who fought and died for the Confederacy at the Battle of New Market, six of whom are buried at the foot of the monument. Both statues are the work of Moses Ezekiel, a Richmond native who became VMI’s first Jewish cadet and fought at New Market.
Peay, a retired U.S. Army general who served two tours in Vietnam, said the institute is “not a place for bigotry,” because “we do not put up with that here at VMI.”
“I think our young ladies feel they’re safe here. I think our African-American kids generally feel that they’re treated fairly here,” Peay said. “We have black regimental commanders at VMI. We’ve had black Honor Court presidents selected by their peers. We just had a female African-American young lady selected to the Honor Court by her peers this year.”
Asked by a board member whether the institute has received feedback from the VMI community on the statue issue, Peay said “almost all” of the comments he received came from people “worried that we will be politically correct and change something in our history that we should not change.”
“Sometimes the best leaders don’t make decisions in times of emotions,” Peay said. “And these are raw emotions in the commonwealth right now. And steady, boy, steady ... could be the better approach.”