LEXINGTON, Va. — 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 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.
The action came 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.
VMI spokesman Col. William “Bill” Wyatt told The Associated Press that the school welcomes the review and will cooperate with it. But Wyatt said the letter's suggestion that there's a “clear and appalling culture of ongoing structural racism” is “just not true.”
Wyatt said a response was in the works to the officials' letter, and he said he would provide a copy when it was available.
Monday's letter was signed by Northam, who is a VMI graduate; Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax; Attorney General Mark Herring and top legislative leaders.
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.