As a member of the Rat Line at Virginia Military Institute in 1968, Harry Gore saluted Stonewall Jackson each time he walked by the Confederate general’s statue on the military academy’s campus.
He’d pause, raise his hand to his head, and think to himself: “I’m still here.”
Gore was the first Black person accepted to VMI and one of five to integrate the school 52 years ago, breaking the color barrier at the oldest state military college in the U.S. and making VMI the last public college in Virginia to integrate. The Black cadets, like their peers, would salute Jackson, a professor at VMI before the Civil War, each time they passed the statue.
While VMI has done away with the practice of saluting the statue, the monument remains, as Gore thinks it should and as the state law mandates.
“We really don’t want to erase history, and I want the younger generation to know the extent of the struggle,” Gore said.
Adam Randolph, one of the other barrier-breaking cadets, left VMI after two years, in part due to the school’s Confederate iconography, including the Jackson statue.
“I found it distasteful,” Randolph said.
As localities and colleges across Virginia grapple with what to do with their Confederate symbols, VMI announced this week that it is changing some of its traditions in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. However, the Confederate statues will remain, with no plans to take down Jackson or rename any VMI buildings, Superintendent J.H. Binford Peay III said.
“Rather, in the future we will emphasize recognition of leaders from the Institute’s second century,” Peay wrote in a seven-page letter to cadets, faculty, alumni and the community. “We will place unvarnished context on the value and lessons to be learned from the Institute’s rich heritage, while being mindful of the nation’s challenges and sensitivities to being fair and inclusive to all.”
VMI’s Confederate iconography is exempt from a new state law that gives localities control of Confederate monuments, which Richmond officials and others have used to remove the symbols in a state where much of the Civil War was fought.
Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, a VMI alumnus, successfully proposed the exemption during the General Assembly session, with an amendment that said nothing in the new law “shall apply to a monument or memorial located on the property of a public institution of higher education within the City of Lexington,” where VMI is located.
“VMI’s heritage still has significant relevancy today, as every cadet — regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender — is inspirationally reminded every day, ‘You may be whatever you resolve to be,’” Norment said in a statement. “I embrace its intrinsic values and history in producing extraordinary ‘citizen soldiers,’ who become the leaders we so desperately need in today’s atmosphere. VMI produces well-rounded graduates who are prepared to make a positive imprint on the communities where they live.”
He added: “Like every other public college and university in Virginia, VMI has a Board of Visitors, as well as a Superintendent, which is a military institution’s equivalent of the president of a civilian college. The Board and the Superintendent determine the policies that govern VMI. I respect their judgment and will continue to support their policy decisions.”
Peay, the superintendent, and VMI’s board of visitors said in 2017 after the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville that it would keep the statues.
Then-gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam, a VMI alumnus, said he respects his alma mater’s decision. Northam has been one of the state’s leading proponents of removing Confederate iconography in recent months.
Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said Thursday: “The Governor has made it clear that we should not be glorifying individuals who fought to uphold the institution of slavery, nor should we be honoring a revisionist version of our history.
“While he does not direct individual university decision making, he expects VMI — like all state-supported schools — to be welcoming and inclusive of all. As he often says, this work requires more than just words. It requires action.”
Virginia has removed at least 18 Confederate symbols since Floyd’s May death, the second-most of any state behind North Carolina (20), according to an analysis of 2019 Southern Poverty Law Center data. That leaves 229 standing.
Removing Confederate monuments is an increasingly popular opinion in Virginia.
A new poll released Thursday by the Center for Public Policy at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University found 38% of state residents think that the remaining Confederate statues should be moved to museums, up from 23% in December 2017. Thirty-two percent of the people surveyed said the monuments should be left in place, a drop of 17 percentage points from 2017.
According to the poll of 838 adults, conducted via phone from July 11-19, 14% of Virginians think the monuments should be removed altogether.
The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.19 percentage points for all adults and 6.40 percentage points for likely voters.
While VMI won’t be taking action on its Confederate statues, Peay said it will implement other changes.
Every cadet will take a second-year course called the “American Civic Experience” that will “emphasize American history and civics within the context historically of national and world events, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and slavery.”
Peay said the course has been under development for three years and will be piloted this fall.
VMI will also review two Virginia history classes, one on the state before 1865 and one after the Civil War, “to ensure that they are taught with the proper context and from multiple perspectives.”
VMI will re-center the tall parade ground flagpoles to shift the focus away from Jackson, while relocating the Cadet Oath ceremony. Instead of holding it at New Market Battlefield, where VMI cadets fought for the Confederacy, Peay said “the Oath is important to the current cadetship and should be executed at VMI.”
VMI will also promote more commissioning into the military and recruit more diverse faculty and staff, among other things.
“Throughout the years, the primary focus on honoring VMI’s history has been to celebrate principles of honor, integrity, character, courage, service, and selflessness of those associated with the Institute,” Peay wrote. “It is not to in any way condone racism, much less slavery.”
Peay said VMI’s governing board will discuss the statues and other parts of its plan during its September meeting.