Jamila Paksima: In the Spring of 2020, the Virginia Military Institute, or VMI, located in the remote college town of Lexington, Virginia, was unprepared for the racial reckoning it was about to face concerning its past and its future.
Kaleb Tucker: I’m not comfortable saluting someone who fought against people of my color.
Jackie Morton: For any of them to turn a blind eye to racism in barracks.
Ingrid Amani Joseph: A perfect cadet here would be a white male cadet.
Jackie Morton: My whole argument is we can replace those people if they want to be dinosaurs and refuse to change, they can go extinct, and it can happen real quick.
Jamila Paksima: VMI is a college embedded in Southern military tradition. Founded in 1839, its roots are Confederate gray and, despite a civil rights revolution, those traditions are at the core of the military college experience.
Honor, discipline and respect for the Confederacy has made it a traumatic experience for many students of color.
Yvonne Latty: These are the names of VMI students—Confederate soldiers who died on this so-called “field of honor” in what was an annual reenactment of the Battle of New Market.
Ingrid Amani Joseph: We had to run up the field.
Yvonne Latty: The heart and soul of this school seems to be wrapped in this one battle, where 50 VMI students as young as 15 were injured. Five died in this battle and five more died of their injuries.
Ingrid Amani Joseph: When they said, go whatever and they’re, like, “Make sure you say, like, you’re yelling, like, do your warrior cry or whatever.”
Yvonne Latty: In 1864, the VMI Civilian Cadet Corps fought in the Battle of New Market on this Civil War battlefield. It’s a shrine for those who worship the Confederacy. There’s still a farm with a lovely main house and a few other structures, including slave quarters.
And it was here in the fall of 2018, that newly minted Virginia Military Institute freshmen, better known as “rats,” like Ingrid Joseph, an 18-year-old track star, a young Black woman, was forced to carry a rifle and pretend she was a Confederate soldier fighting to keep Black people enslaved.
Ingrid Amani Joseph: And I remember I did not run. I walked. They’re like, “Run, Ingrid, run.” And I was, like, “I’m not running. I don’t want to do this.”
Yvonne Latty: So let me get this straight: You, a young Black woman, was asked to pretend you were a Confederate soldier running in a field to battle the Union, which was fighting to end slavery.
Ingrid Amani Joseph: Yes, it was awkward. I didn’t come here to be a rat or to learn about the Confederacy or to honor the Confederacy. I didn’t, I didn’t come here for that. I came here to get an education and to run.
Yvonne Latty: Joseph and the other freshman “Rats” not only had to run but also memorize and shout out the names of the 10 deceased VMI Confederate Civil War cadets.
For Joseph, now a senior, and other Black VMI students and alum, this was the start of the racism they were forced to endure throughout their time at the school.
Ingrid Amani Joseph: It’s like we’re – we’re tricked into coming here because you see the amount of money that you’re getting, it’s hard getting scholarships other places. And then they’re selecting Black populations from inner cities where college is hard to pay for, but you’re putting us in a place where we’re the minority and we don’t have a voice. It takes a toll on your mental health.
Jamila Paksima: This is our fourth season of the podcast Sounds Like Hate, brought to you by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Join us in a new two-part story, “Wake Up Call: Part One.” I’m Jamila Paksima.
VMI: VMI Honor Code: I will not lie, cheat, steal, nor tolerate those who do. VMI Honor Code: I will not lie, cheat, steal, nor tolerate those who do.
Yvonne Latty: And I’m Yvonne Latty. This episode tells the story of the students and alumni of the Virginia Military Institute. Individually and collectively, they aired their frustrations about the school and demanded change.
Jamila Paksima: We speak with current students and alumni practicing their First Amendment rights to expose what they believe has led to the perpetuation of racism and false narratives in the very institution teaching our future leaders.
Lexington, Virginia, it is where both Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson taught. Lee was the president of what was then called Washington College. His five-year tenure led the school to take his name after his death. Washington and Lee sits right next to VMI, which is where Stonewall Jackson taught natural philosophy and artillery tactics as an instructor.
Yvonne Latty: It was during the Civil War when Jackson, a slave owner, earned the nickname “Stonewall.” He failed as teacher, was even mocked by students, but as a general he did not hesitate to lead his men into bloody battles, never really caring about the body count.
His war philosophy was “kill every man.”He never second guessed, and so he earned the reputation of “military genius.” His end came when he was accidentally shot by his own army when returning from a battle. He died of complications from pneumonia. The South was shattered.
Jamila Paksima: At VMI, Gen. Jackson’s stately 15-foot bronze monument on top of a pedestal towered at the center of campus for over a 109 years, and all cadets were expected to salute this slave owner and defender of secession as they walked by.
Kimberly Probolus: It has been kind of, as you said, so baked into the institution; it’s a part of their culture, it’s a part of their traditions.
Yvonne Latty: Kimberly Probolus is a senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center. She researched and authored the third edition of the SPLC’s “Whose Heritage?” report, which looked at the 2,089 Confederate memorials at the time of its publication that are still standing in public spaces in the United States.
Kimberly Probolus: We know that traditions and culture are so important for, kind of, community building to make institutions function. I just question: Why the Confederacy, right? Why are these the heroes that they’re lifting up? VMI has many, many alumni who did not fight to preserve the right to enslave African Americans. Why not honor those people? Why not use them as the basis of community building?
Yvonne Latty: VMI is the oldest state-run military college in the country. It’s called the West Point of the South. The 200-acre campus is striking, orderly and peaceful. It looks like a fortress, with Gothic Revival buildings surrounding large parade grounds. In the center courtyard sits red Civil War-era cannons. Cadets in uniform walk quietly through campus.
Kimberly Probolus: You can’t necessarily blame people who have never been taught the correct history, right? The thing is, what do people do when they are confronted with the facts? And that’s where you want to see people recognize that they were wrong. Look, no reputable historian is saying that the Civil War was about anything other than slavery. I don’t understand why people are so attached to this version of history that is wrong and saying it wasn’t about slavery, it’s about our heritage. I can’t understand it outside of racism, and I also, candidly, don’t think there’s much more you can do aside from giving people the truth.
Keniya Lee: She looked at me and then she laughed, and she said she wasn’t sure if she should share the story or not, and then she went to tell the story. So, she started that she was from Ohio, and her dad was a high-ranking member in the KKK.
Jamila Paksima: Keniya Lee, like many of the Black students at VMI, is an athlete, offered a full scholarship to earn a college education. She played Division One soccer for the school when she was admitted to VMI in 2015.
But she says it was in the classroom where she faced racism she could not ignore. About 6% of the VMI Student Corps of Cadets identify as Black or African American.
In 2019, Lee’s senior year, her international business professor revealed proudly, according to Lee, that her father was a high-ranking member of the Ohio Ku Klux Klan.
Keniya Lee: She went 45 minutes just talking about the KKK, what her dad did, the parties she went to. She said they was, they were the best parties ever. I really wanted to stand up and ask her, “Why do you think that this is OK for the only Black person in your class to hear that the KKK was the best thing that you ever heard, for a group that still terrorizes us to this day?”
Jamila Paksima: The professor spoke about the times she and friends drove around in cars bopping and knocking minorities in the head because they didn’t belong in Ohio. The professor told another journalist she was along for the ride but never did the bopping.
Lee’s professor then wraps up her lesson and says she attended college in the North where she met Black basketball athletes, women and men. She was amazed by their talent. She said she was shocked because she had never met a Black person before and didn’t think they ate, bathed or could read or learn, saying she was surprised to learn Black people were very nice. The business teacher concluded by saying that people change. According to Lee, the professor’s message was:
Keniya Lee: It’s all changed now; everybody’s equal. Everybody’s happy. There’s no more racism in America this, that, and the third.
Jamila Paksima: Lee says she ultimately did not formally file a complaint with the school because she, like most Black students, had no expectation of a fair outcome.
Keniya Lee: I’m not making a complaint, but this is not right. I just want to say this, put it out, this is my statement. I just want an apology and just to make sure that this doesn’t happen while I’m in her class again.
Jamila Paksima: Lee attempted to report this incident but says VMI’s investigators advised her if she dropped the class, she’d have to re-enroll for a fifth year at VMI.
Keniya Lee: They didn’t threaten me, but they put it in my awareness that, you know, if you have an open investigation, you can’t graduate. So, and I, this is January, I’m just trying to get out of here.
Jamila Paksima: VMI’s grievance procedures for complaints in 2020 was time consuming and a multi-step process, which had been overseen by a commandant and an assistant who oversaw the Title IX complaints. After hearing her options, Lee withdrew her anonymous formal complaint. Then, in what felt like a disingenuous way, Lee says, the instructor spoke to the class.
Keniya Lee: And she never apologized until, like, the end of the semester. She’s like, “I don’t think I need to apologize, but they’re telling me that I need to because somebody complained.”
Shah Rahman: I’ll tell you, I love VMI. It’s a big part of who I am. I would not be who I am without VMI.
Jamila Paksima: Shah Rahman, class of 1997, proudly wears his VMI combat ring every day since graduation. Born in Bangladesh, Rahman attended schools across Northern Africa, where he says he experienced fierce racism. He started his U.S. education at Ithaca College in New York before finding a fast track to attend VMI.
Shah Rahman: I wanted to have a career in the military and even though I knew it would be difficult because I was not a citizen, I thought, “Wow, I know of VMI, I know it’s so steeped in history. I know of Stonewall Jackson, you know, I know of Gen. George C. Marshall. I know of Patton having attended VMI for, for a short period of time.”
Jamila Paksima: Rahman, a civil engineering foreign student, landed a job at the college’s museum, which preserves VMI’s Confederate history on campus. It was a perfect fit for this young history buff who believed everything he read about Southern heroes he found in the museum archives and books.
Shah Rahman: And I didn’t know how prominent a slave owner that Stonewall Jackson himself was. Why? Because again, when you read the history that had been rewritten, he’s known as this man of compassion who rather than owned slaves or have anything to do with slavery, he would actually teach them Sunday school.
Jamila Paksima: His coming to terms with the truth about the Southern institution’s revered leaders felt a lot like betrayal. The Unite the Right rally 2017 woke him up.
Guardian: You will not replace us! You will not replace us!
Jamila Paksima: If Gen. Robert E. Lee’s statue was a problem in Charlottesville, what about the statues at VMI?
Shah Rahman: I was ignorant for 20-plus years. You know, I started looking through the true lens of real history. You never thought of VMI necessarily as the institution that supported slavery. It was all whitewashed, right? It was all painted very differently from what the truth was, and really, that ugly truth didn’t really come to the forefront until, you know, the Black Lives Matter movement started up the way in which it did.
BLM: Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter!
Jamila Paksima: Rahman genuinely was unsettled by the events and wanted to help VMI. He started reaching out to other alumni as a first step.
Classmate Donnie Hasseltine, a white retired 20-year lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps, had shared concerning comments on LinkedIn, which caught Shah’s attention.
Turns out, Hasseltine, who runs a cybersecurity firm, was ready to publish an article online with recommendations for his alma mater.
Donnie Hasseltine: Within the VMI culture it’s, like, we trust each other, like, immensely, like, I mean, because the honor code.
Jamila Paksima: The honor code was established in 1839, before the Civil War, and though it has been updated through the years, the code has always intended to be an equalizer, the glue which has bonded the alumni and the civilian soldier corps of VMI.
Donnie Hasseltine: Anything that disrupts the cohesion of the unit is a problem that needs to be addressed. And I think that initially I kind of tried to strike a middle balance and then we all kind of started getting together and realized, like, there’s not that, there’s not really much middle ground here, like, it made me really angry because what they experienced was not in keeping with the values the school taught.
Jamila Paksima: In a week, the two joined forces with two more VMI alums from the class of 1999. One of them was Mike Purdy, a Korean American Navy veteran-turned corporatelawyer and Google executive, and Conor Powell, a white, former Fox freelance journalist.
Shah Rahman was on LinkedIn when he saw their article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Shah Rahman: And these two guys had actually called out for the removal of the Jackson statue.
Purdy says there was a big job ahead.
Mike Purdy: The symbolism and the iconography and the traditions are intertwined with actually changing the culture.
Jamila Paksima: This was Virginia, after all, the battleground where Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Confederate monument was at the center of the Unite the Right’s violent and deadly riot.
Across the state, monuments were coming down or becoming centers of racial protest. The four pro-change alums reached out to the school’s board of visitors and administrators. They wanted their school to get ahead of a movement, which they were anticipating was headed straight for their campus.
Mike Purdy: You know, the entire Unite the Right rally was precipitated because they wanted to take a statue of Robert E. Lee down. So, could you see a similar situation happening at VMI? Absolutely. We didn’t want it to become a shrine. I’ve seen plenty of the Virginia Flaggers used to go to campus and wave Confederate flags. So, the idea that they would have some sort of rally there around this piece of Confederate iconography was definitely within the realm of possibility. And it was one of the reasons why we said, “Oh, God, you guys better do something.” I don’t get the sense they were concerned about it at all.
Jamila Paksima: The four alums together drafted their own petition with their plans and began gathering signatures from their alumni community.
Shah Rahman: And so within the first 24 hours, I think we had four or five hundred signatures, and people kept on signing on in support of this, that, you know, there needs to be dialogue, there needs to be this alumni commission.
Jamila Paksima: Donnie Hasseltine says the three alumni’s concerns were confirmed at the resistance they sensed from the school’s leadership.
Donnie Hasseltine: And then when we started walking through all the stuff we had done. Here’s the email we sent to the superintendent: and we start listing all the things that happened over six to eight months. They’re like, “Oh.” It’s like they just didn’t listen. Had, like, the superintendent and the board of visitors listened to our initial suggestions, which weren’t, like, tear it all down, it was, like, “Let’s form a committee to just reassess this.” The Citadel did that. They have almost equal problems as we do, right? Nobody’s attacking them. We were advocating just to have some reasonable dialogue about this and got told, “Go pound sand.”
Jamila Paksima: They say the real issue was the pushback from the leadership of VMI, the board of visitors, and the superintendent. That leader had been a four-star general: J.H. Binford Peay III, who held the role for 17 years. They say he held the overwhelming control over the school, not the board of visitors.
Donnie Hasseltine: He was an 80-year-old white man who went there pre-integration. That’s not saying he’s a bad person or anything like that, but he had some serious blind spots and he surrounded himself with people with blind spots.
Jamila Paksima: These VMI alumni care a lot about VMI and the experience of other students. Rahman emphasizes their intent was “civil discourse.”
Shah Rahman: The first thing that the four of us did collectively as a group is, you know, we called for the creation of an alumni commission that would have a dialogue, not just on the Jackson statue, but other Confederate iconography, as well as, you know, the prevalent, ever presence of the Confederacy in its history in everyday life at the Virginia Military Institute.
Jamila Paksima: VMI was the last institution in the state of Virginia to admit Black students, conceding in 1969, four years after the passing of the Civil Rights Act. VMI also fought to keep women out of their ranks, defying a Supreme Court order for three months until the board voted 9 to 8 to admit women in 1997.
Lt. Col. Mike Strickler VMI spokesman: If the complaint had not been brought to the Justice Department. and the Justice Department had not filed suit, uh, certainly we would have, uh, wanted to maintain our all-male status, and that’s still what we want to do”.
Jamila Paksima: VMI became the last single-sex college in the state in 1997.
Yvonne Latty: There are alumni who are resistant to change and say leave the campus as it is. They believe the statues and symbols tell the story of the school’s history.
Eddie Ahmed: I think the VMI history is being erased for what it is, and I understand Stonewall Jackson and VMI fought for the South, and South was pro-slavery.
Yvonne Latty: That’s Eddie Ahmed. He graduated from VMI in 2010. He was born in Pakistan, but grew up in Houston, Texas.
Eddie Ahmed: But prior to VMI, that’s what was the historical background. So, if you take away Stonewall Jackson, you take away the history of VMI, it just doesn’t make it VMI anymore.
Yvonne Latty: He says he experienced racism at VMI, but it did not make him think less of the institution, which he respects.
Eddie Ahmed: People were saying, you know, “You’re making al-Qaeda terrorists references to me,” and these are other cadets, sometimes, as a joking matter. I had a, I had thin skin when I went to VMI, but once I went to VMI I got thicker skin, but I know once people know who I am, what I stand for, once they meet a Muslim, once they meet someone Pakistan, they know that I’m an American, you know, just like them.
Yvonne Latty: But racism at VMI does have a different effect on many of their Black students. Kaleb Tucker, who was a starting cornerback on the school’s football team, was a frequent target of a staff member.
Kaleb Tucker: What went through my mind at the time was, “This guy has clear power over me, so, and I want to be here.”
Yvonne Latty: By the time Tucker was in his senior year he couldn’t be submissive any longer when the staff member told him he did not want him at VMI anymore.
Kaleb Tucker: He saw me in the barbershop and he just starts screaming at me. So, I was just, like, “OK, let me just fix my tie and fix my shirt being tucked in.” And then I turned around and I stood at attention, it’s like a clear respect. If I stand at attention, I’m respecting you as a military officer. And he just started screaming like, “What the F– are you doing? Why are you here?” Then I’m, like, “What do you want me to fix, sir?” And he just keeps screaming, saying I’m a piece of crap. I need to fix my uniform. I’m lying. I am a man and I got feelings too. So, I was starting, for lack of a better term, I was starting to get pissed. So, I just walked away, and I left. Like less than an hour later, I had four specials on my desk. One was for lying.
Yvonne Latty: Tucker knew these were special disciplinary measures and the allegation of lying could get him kicked out.
For far too many students, racism, misogyny, microaggressions and a worship of the Confederacy was a part of the VMI daily experience. For Tucker, the breaking point came shortly after his graduation. It was June 4, 2020, the day the school superintendent and four-star Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III responded to the murder of George Floyd, two weeks later.
Jamila Paksima: Gen. Peay wrote, the school’s mission is to create great leaders and citizen soldiers. Quote:
“We recognized long before the nation that “civility” was a growing and concerning major deficiency in our Corps of Cadets and society. In my view we were ahead of the nation in addressing that challenge. The principles on which VMI stands: fairness; equity; honor; integrity; accountability; respect and high standards are so important to the advancement of good citizenry. We can advance these traits in society and correct inequalities.”
Jamila Paksima: End quote.
Kaleb Tucker: It was just a slap in the face to any person like me who went there because it sure definitely didn’t feel like they stood alongside BLM while I was there for those four years. So that’s when I just, I, literally took a screenshot of the message that Gen. Peay sent out.
Yvonne Latty: Here is what Tucker wrote the day he started his Change.org petition.
Kaleb Tucker: There has been story on top of story of racism and Black prejudice within the walls of the institute. However, VMI has not once acknowledged allegations, nor has there been any just punishment to deter this racism and Black prejudice. VMI tends to always sweep it under the rug.
Yvonne Latty: Tucker’s story went viral on Twitter. He wanted VMI to acknowledge the racism and prejudice, and he demanded the school “tear down” the Jackson statue.
Kaleb Tucker: I just wanted VMI to one: take the statue down, and second off: just to acknowledge the bad racial atmosphere so that things could begin to change because that’s the first step.
Yvonne Latty: He also urged his classmates to speak out about the harassment, assaults and racism.
Kaleb Tucker: I made a Twitter thread and I opened it up and I said, “Listen to these stories.” And there’s a thread just full of stories from Black VMI cadets just giving their perspective.
Yvonne Latty: The stories that emerged were ugly.
Jackie Morton: There was an incident, I want to say, back in 2014 of, like, the commandant posing with cadets who were dressed as Trump’s wall. There were, like, racial slurs written on it.
Kaleb Tucker: There was a situation where a kid, like, called a group of athletes the N-word, and I thought this was the breaking point and people were going to actually notice what was going on, and then, but nothing ever came from it.
Keniya Lee: The corporal yelled at the rat and said, “You know, I’m going to hang or lynch your body and beat your body like a dead corpse,” or something like that, or “punch your body like a dead corpse.”
Jamila Paksima: In response, a counter petition was started by Jeremy Sanders, a 2015 alum who beckoned fellow alumni to show their support to keep the Stonewall Jackson monument and traditions standing and said:
WSLS Jeremy Sanders: They represent the heritage of VMI. I’m not saying there’s not individual act of racism because, unfortunately, there are evil and corrupt people wherever you go. Saying the entire school, painting the entire school that way is an injustice to the school.
Yvonne Latty: And the hate also happened online in dozens of private Facebook groups or an app called Jodel, which was particularly popular among cadets because the anonymous messages and racist memes can disappear with a single tap of a finger.
The brewing storm caught the eye of The Roanoke Times and then The Washington Post, who turned it into a national story.
Gov. Northam: I was at a school that was really bathed in the history of the Confederacy, but I was not aware of it at the time. The history of the Civil War was really being glorified right around your very eyes, and I didn’t know it at the time.
Jamila Paksima: On November 30, 2021, I went to the state capital of Richmond to interview perhaps one of VMI’s most recognized modern-day alums, the Commonwealth of Virginia’s 73rd governor, Ralph Northam.
He has been leading an initiative to remove more Confederate statues in public spaces across his state. He is also known as “Gov. Blackface.”
CNN Northam: My fellow Virginians, earlier today I released a statement apologizing for behavior in my past that falls far short of the standard you set for me when elected me to be your governor.
Jamila Paksima: In 2019, Northam faced his own racist photo scandal, which nearly upended his political career. He says VMI prepared him for life and its hard lessons, including the yearbook incident.
An old yearbook Halloween photo surfaced in the media and alleged he was the man in blackface standing next to another person dressed up as a KKK knight in a white robe and a white pointed hood.
When the story first broke, Northam held a press conference and apologized. One investigation said it was inconclusive if he was the man in blackface. Today, Northam says he was not the man in the widely circulated 1987 blackface yearbook picture.
Gov. Northam: There were two very, and very thorough investigations, and I’m not in that picture, so that needs to be clear.
Jamila Paksima: But he had, in fact, shown up at another party in blackface.
Gov. Northam: I did, as part of all the yearbook incidents, tell people that I had put shoe polish on my face dressing up as Michael Jackson. It was a Halloween costume slash dance party. And then with the yearbook incident, which was in February of 2019, that was a very hurtful time for Virginia.
Jamila Paksima: Northam says after the incident, he went on a listening tour around the commonwealth to learn.
Gov. Northam: I’m going to learn everything that I can about our history, the good and the bad. And then I’m in a position as, as governor where I’m going to do everything I can to, uh, to take action.
Jamila Paksima: He says right after the first VMI story broke in June of 2020, he directly contacted Superintendent Peay.
Gov. Northam: I think a wake-up call for me. I had conversations with a lot of folks from VMI. It’s a very tight-knit family. I think several of those folks had discussions with the former superintendent. I had a discussion with the superintendent, Gen. Peay, the first week in July of 2020, and said that we need to address some of these issues. I don’t know who was giving him advice or what he was hearing, or how he made his decisions, but it was clear to me that the challenges of VMI were not being adequately addressed. I sat down with the leaders in the Senate and the House, the attorney general, the lieutenant governor, and they were furious, and said, “Things need to change at VMI, and they need to change now.”
Jamila Paksima: In Virginia, the governor does not have the authority to tell VMI or superintendent what to do, but the board of visitors does. And the board also denied there were problems.
VMI has a history of fiercely refusing change, which the governor is quick to point out. VMI’s Superintendent Gen. Peay denied the college had racial harassment concerns. And Gov. Northam says the school was in jeopardy if they did not cooperate and examine the cases coming forward in the media.
Gov. Northam: Long story short, so VMI was in a position where they were going to have their funding cut off. In addition to leaders of the General Assembly were going to ask Gen. Peay if he didn’t make changes to move on. He resigned over the weekend after the phone call was made to his adviser, via my chief of staff. We did not force his resignation. Governors do not fire superintendents, that is dealt with by the board of visitors. But VMI chose not to deal with their challenges, and that’s why the investigation was called for. I think it was a fair investigation. There was a lot of resistance from the alumni of VMI, but we did it as fairly and as open and as transparent as we could.
Yvonne Latty: $1.3 million was allocated to rapidly conduct a thorough investigation along with recommendations for improving equity for the future of VMI. An independent law firm, Barnes & Thornburg, was engaged.
Several influential alumni board of visitors members also stepped down as the investigation began vetting the allegations of racism. Anti-reform alumni now had a new mission. Some of them mobilized and started a new political action committee named the Spirit of VMI in March of 2021. This PAC’s goals are to support a slate of Virginia candidates who will fight to preserve the traditions at VMI and promote the idea that VMI is good.
Matt Daniel: We, we consider this a long-term fight, fight maybe the wrong word, a long-term engagement in order to affect the VMI issues that we’re trying to grapple with.
Yvonne Latty: The Spirit of VMI PAC is run by VMI alum and PAC chair Matt Daniel from the class of 1985. Here he is rousing support on a webinar.
Matt Daniel: We are alumni. We are parents. We’re, we’re friends and relatives of VMI who are all concerned about the direction that the VMI has been taking. We’re doing this because after the events in the fall where Gov. Northam and a couple of handfuls of legislators made a public recusal, a statement that said that the VMI is harboring a culture of systemic racism. And the silence that echoed from VMI was deafening.
Jamila Paksima: Shah Rahman worries because the alumni support is stacked against reform.
Shah Rahman: Like 60% to as high as 85% of the alumni body are probably anti-change. They think all of this is just a big joke.
Jamila Paksima: Among the first candidates that Spirit of VMI political action committee backed for the upcoming 2021 election was Republican nominee for governor, Glenn Youngkin.
Matt Daniel did not respond to our requests for an interview.
Matt Daniel: What can we do to get the real facts out, to try to catch the eye of the people who are curious about what’s going on at VMI? And the best that we can do is to try and continue to tickle their senses in the place that we call “Mother I,” try to get as many of the social media outlets as we possibly can. The concept, the tagline, and I should have said it from the start – “VMI is Good.”
Jamila Paksima: Gov. Northam says not all practices at VMI were good and perpetuating myths or dated practices should not be part of a cadet’s education.
Gov. Northam: If you had asked me when I was at VMI, “Tell me a little something about Stonewall Jackson. And you know, why are we saluting him? When was this statue erected?” I couldn’t tell you any of that. They also marched us to the Battle of New Market, which is where VMI fought in that Civil War battle. When I was at VMI, and I can’t speak for everybody else there, but you were just trying to survive, I was just trying to survive.
Jamila Paksima: It influences people. It influences how you see the world, the decisions that you’ll make as a leader.
Gov. Northam: The eyes can’t see what the brain doesn’t know. My brain didn’t know the history of slavery in this country. I didn’t know, again, why, what was the significance of the Battle of New Market? You know, why we were saluting Stonewall Jackson, and even when we would walk across the campus of Washington and Lee, we would salute, you know, Gen. Lee as well. I wasn’t aware of that history.
Jamila Paksima: Today, at 62, Northam says he knows the truth about the Confederacy. He learned it from education after leaving VMI, his blackface listening tour and his efforts to relocate Confederate monuments across his state.
Jamila Paksima: How do you get an institution like VMI to shift their culture and to change their curriculum and to do all of that? That’s a place where you don’t complain.
Gov. Northam: We, as a family of VMI alumni, have to ask our questions: What is the purpose of VMI? And I think most people would agree that the purpose is to train citizen soldiers who, you know, are reinforced with integrity and honor and, and the desire to serve others. That should be the mission, and that’s a good mission for VMI. But if the mission is to talk about the Confederacy and the “Lost Cause” and, and to glorify people that fought for the institution of slavery, then that’s wrong. There are museums, there are battlefields, that’s fine. So be it. But it doesn’t need to be force fed to people that attend VMI.
Yvonne Latty: On November 13, 2020, a Black leader was appointed to oversee the change. Two-star Maj. Gen. Cedric Wins became the new interim superintendent.
He’s a VMI alumni and was a star basketball player who graduated in 1987. It was his basketball coach from VMI who first texted him, asking if he’d consider the job.
At first Cadet Joseph was excited about the first Black superintendent and the push for Black students to finally have a voice, but now she feels Wins’ message still plays to the old guard.
Ingrid Amani Joseph: His idea of the “One Corps, One VMI” is problematic because it doesn’t allow for diversity. Saying that there’s “One Corps, One VMI,” you’re making it seem like everyone’s the same; you’re not showing that there’s differences and that we should acknowledge everyone’s differences and celebrate everyone’s differences. It kind of continues the narrative that we’re all the same, that we’re all experiencing the same things.
Yvonne Latty: Gen. Wins’ historic appointment was intended to be sympathetic to racial equity efforts, but Wins has been clear: He never experienced racism as a student at VMI. This deepened Joseph’s suspicion of the new leader.
Ingrid Amani Joseph: To announce that you never personally experienced racism in front of the whole school where you have, you’re a few Black students that are saying that they’re experiencing racism it kind of, like, was like, they’re not really experiencing racism. That’s how I felt, so I didn’t like that.
Yvonne Latty: Gen. Wins declined our requests for an interview.
Jamila Paksima: By April 2021, Gen. Wins is fully appointed to the role of superintendent. But overseeing change was not on Wins’ shoulders alone. Gov. Northam appointed new leadership to the VMI board. New members who would have the power to be more sympathetic to the racial justice work ahead, though, there was no guarantee.
Yvonne Latty: Looming over the change was the equity investigation by the law firm Barnes & Thornburg. It took six months to complete and the findings were ugly: A 145-page report released June 1 of 2021 revealed that not only had the school tolerated and allowed racism, it was also a sexist culture and sexual assaults on campus were found to be prevalent. They recommended the institution needed to change its culture.
WSLS: Today the independent investigation ordered by Gov. Northam’s office came to a close. That new report finds systemic racism and sexism at Virginia Military Institute.
Jamila Paksima: The report also showed honor court proceedings, which are the school’s peer-reviewed discipline process, found convictions and expulsions from school disproportionately disciplined and affected Black cadets. They were drummed out of VMI more often as a whole.
Yvonne Latty: Shah Rahman says the investigation confirmed what many believed to be true all along: more Black students, 54% over three years, were expelled or “rolled out” from VMI’s student jury honor court system in comparison to white students.
Shah Rahman: We’re talking about guys in the Honor Court who would readily use the N-word and are prosecuting a nonwhite, specifically an African American, for an offense. Can you then truly expect justice from these same guys who clearly are a racist? Well, no. While Blacks make up only 6% of the Corps of Cadets, 49 to 50% of those cadets that were rolled out every year for honor violations happen to be African Americans or people of color.
Yvonne Latty: And the report had more damning findings. VMI lagged behind other Virginia institutions of higher education and other military academies in race and gender metrics and diversity efforts.
Jamila Paksima: The school was in fact “run by white men, for white men,” and VMI had also acted in ways to prevent negative information coming out about VMI discouraging women to file assault complaints. A sample survey revealed 14% of female cadets reported being sexually assaulted at VMI, while 63% said that a fellow cadet had told them that he or she was a victim of sexual assault while at VMI as a cadet.
Ingrid Amani Joseph: Toxic masculinity plagues our corps because it’s predominantly male.
Yvonne Latty: Joseph says she has never been assaulted but knows female cadets who have. Until recently, cadets were not allowed to lock their doors.
Ingrid Amani Joseph: Non-VMI workers and cadets have came into barracks while we were sleeping in the middle of the night.
Yvonne Latty: The investigation also found the institute maintains reverence for the Civil War and the Confederacy. Civil War traditions are still given disproportionate attention.
Jamila Paksima: Among many recommendations were:
-For VMI to hire an equity and diversity officer and to implement programs and to report on that work for three years to the Virginia State Council of Higher Education.
-To also improve a safe reporting process for harassment and sexual assaults.
-And to develop and address a quarterly plan for the removal and relocation or contextualization of Confederate iconography.
Yvonne Latty: VMI’s reaction to the spotlight was to continue to deny there was a problem and question the accuracy of the report and data.
Alum and former board of visitors member, Waite Rawls, was on the board when the report came out. Rawls was interviewed by the investigators for over 90 minutes. He says they got it wrong and don’t understand the unique experience of attending VMI.
Waite Rawls: You know, attitudes toward Confederates, in general, and Confederate statues, specifically, have really been in question in the past four or five years.
Yvonne Latty: It’s the friction between athletes and non-athletes that Waite sees as the problem. And as far as the Confederate statues and reenactments, he says VMI was wrestling with those five years ago and was nothing new.
Waite Rawls: So, VMI has to be aware of its surroundings like that and, in so asking cadets, regardless of whether they’re African American or from Taiwan, to salute Stonewall Jackson, VMI realized some years back that that was probably a great tradition that should be filed away in the history books.
WSLS: Virginia Military Institute is removing a symbol of its history: the Stonewall Jackson monument on post. A weight off Kaleb Tucker’s shoulders.
Kaleb Tucker: Crazy to actually be witnessing; this change is happening in front of your eyes.
Yvonne Latty: Nothing symbolizes the change at VMI like the removal of the Stonewall Jackson statue, a symbol of trauma for far too many Black students.
Jamila Paksima: On December 7, 2020, in silence, with little fanfare, a crane lifted the Stonewall Jackson monument off its pedestal at VMI and carted it away to its his new home: VMI’s Civil War museum, about 80 miles away, where he will stand guard over the Battle of New Market site and be a part of the endless selfies and social media posts of Civil War buffs who visit.
For Shah Rahman, the moving of the statue was a day he needed to honor with his old boss at the VMI museum.
Shah Rahman: You know who my support system was? Col. Gibson at the VMI Museum, he was my boss. He’s the guy that made sure that the Stonewall Jackson statue stayed. I loved the man. I will fight for him. But he is the reason the Jackson statue stayed. It’s, it’s all so confusing. You know, I, I, he’s one of the greatest human beings I know, but he’s also one of the biggest supporters of the whole VMI narrative.
Jamila Paksima: Have you spoken to him during this whole – ?
Shah Rahman: We spoke in the early days, very early days. I called him to give him a heads up that my brother rat Donnie Hasseltine was writing this article, that it was going to come out. He kind of didn’t take it very seriously. He’s, like, “OK, well, I’ll try to see what I can do to convince Gen. Peay that, you know, these types of changes are needed.” Then, as things heated up more, he just kind of stopped talking to me. I could tell that there was a definite, like, a stop in our communication.
Jamila Paksima: Col. Keith Gibson agreed to answer our questions by email. He said as a cadet “Rahman impressed us all with his,” to use a VMI phrase, “never say die” spirit.
Col. Gibson was appointed to the board of visitors to serve on the commemorations and memorial naming and review committee. He also said, contrary to Rahman’s assessment, quote, “He does not support the display of Confederate iconography on post,” end quote, noting he has been a part of careful discussions and reviews from all VMI constituents on the committee making recommendations to the board of visitors about the iconography and focusing on original intent.
Col. Gibson also says he did not recall discussing these issues with Rahman in detail nor speaking to him when the Stonewall Jackson monument was removed off campus. Rahman remembers that day differently.
Shah Rahman: The day the Jackson statue fell, I called him up, and we talked and I was in tears because it was such an emotional moment for me. But I also wanted him to understand that I hope he didn’t think that I was turning my back on VMI, that I appreciated him for who he was, and I just felt compelled to have this conversation with him. And he completely understood. But we’ve never spoken since.
Jamila Paksima: Undisputed is one fact: Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s monument honors a man instrumental to the Confederacy.
Jamila Paksima: And why was it so emotional for you?
Shah Rahman: Ah, uh, because it’s Col. Gibson. You know, he and the museum staff were sort of almost like mom and dad to me in the absence of my mom and dad who were overseas. And I don’t feel the need to justify myself to anybody, but I do to Col. Gibson.
Jamila Paksima: So, is this something you’ve lost in this battle you think?
Shah Rahman: Yeah, I think so. I don’t know that I’ve necessarily lost Col. Gibson, he’s a very reasonable person, but I think I’ve lost some very, very, very close brothers. I’ve lost some very close brother rats that I thought the world of that kind of felt that they needed to abandon me in the middle of all of this because they so vehemently disagreed with what I stood for.
Jamila Paksima: I believe most of us want people to see us for who we are, to see you as a full human being in every way and that you’re equal. And, and when people react that way, it can be a hard truth.
Shah Rahman: Yeah. Just, just, you know, there are moments when I felt so abandoned.
Jamila Paksima: Col. Gibson says he’s proud Rahman considers him a mentor and his respect for Rahman has not altered in 28 years. Signing off the email response to us with the assurance, “He is my friend.”
Yvonne Latty: Coming up next in part two of “Wake-Up Call,” how will the Virginia Military Institute implement sweeping changes? Can the culture of an institution built on the foundations of white supremacy be reformed?
Mike Purdy: And you have to ask the question, “Are you really about service anymore or does this really come down to it being a private Confederate Boys Club?”
Jamila Paksima: Our exclusive interview with Dr. Jamica Love, who is Black and the first chief officer of diversity and inclusion in the school’s 183 years.
Dr. Jamica Love: So, for me, I’m building a plane in midair.
Yvonne Latty: Influential conservative VMI alumni are calling for the reversal of changes and the ousting of VMI’s new Black Superintendent Gen. Cedric Wins.
Shah Rahman: They’re also putting this money together to actually continue to allow VMI to be a racist institution and to support those things that allowed VMI to be a racist institution at so many levels.
Jamila Paksima:And will the newly elected governor of Virginia, Glenn Youngkin, heed the pleas of the anti-change alumni and undo all the work already started, including banning critical race theory from the school and returning Confederate monuments to the VMI campus?
Yvonne Latty: Subscribe to hear more of Sounds Like Hate, a podcast series brought to you by the Southern Poverty Law Center, available anywhere you get your podcasts. I’m Yvonne Latty.
Jamila Paksima: And I’m Jamila Paksima, thanks for listening.