After months of Black current and former students at Virginia Military Institute speaking up about rampant racism at the institution, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has ordered an investigation into the school’s culture.
The investigation was announced in a letter signed by the commonwealth’s top lawmakers, including Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, and Attorney General Mark Herring and Del. Lamont Bagby, the chair of Virginia’s Legislative Black Caucus, reports the Washington Post. In it, officials said the state would be conducting an “independent, third-party review” of the “clear and appalling culture of ongoing structural racism at the Virginia Military Institute.”
The letter comes after a report from the Post, published this past weekend, dug deeper into allegations about the school’s institutional racism, including a lynching threat against a Black student that went unpunished, a business professor who waxed poetic about attending Klu Klux Klan parties, and an ongoing reverence for the Confederacy, with which the school has deep connections.
Officials mentioned these details in the letter, writing:
“Black cadets at VMI have long faced repeated instances of racism on campus, including horrifying new revelations of threats about lynching, vicious attacks on social media, and even a professor who spoke fondly of her family’s history in the Ku Klux Klan—to say nothing of inconsistent application of the Institute’s Honor Code.”
The letter added that VMI cadets are continually exposed to a campus culture that “honors the Confederacy and celebrates an inaccurate and dangerous ‘Lost Cause’ version of Virginia’s history.”
“It is long past time to consign these relics to the dustbin of history,” it continued, noting that institutions funded by taxpayers have a particular obligation to be “welcoming and inclusive, and to eschew outdated traditions that glamorize a history rooted in rebellion against the United States.”
While the experiences reported in the Post happened within the last several years, they are coming to light this year as part of a wider reckoning about the ongoing damage caused by systemic racism. Recent VMI grad Kaleb Tucker shared an online petition in June demanding the school take down its statue of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson. Up until a few years ago, first-year cadets were obligated to salute the Confederate soldier and slave owner.
“When you first get there, you’re on the bottom of the totem pole,” Tucker told The Root. “When you leave your barracks, which are your dorms, rats”—the term used for first-years—“have to salute Stonewall Jackson. In other words, pay respect to a Confederate leader.”
One of the most egregious allegations came last summer when a Black cadet accused a white sophomore of threatening to “lynch” him and “use his dead corpse as a punching bag.” The white cadet initially denied the incident before confessing—violating the school’s strict honor code, which mandates that any student caught lying be dismissed.
The white cadet was suspended for one academic year.
VMI was the last public college in Virginia to integrate and received $19 million in state funding last year. All of the school’s top officials are white men. The school also has a 17-person board, of which three members are Black. Two of them were appointed by Gov. Northam within the last two years. Black cadets comprise just 8 percent of the school’s 1,700 students, with many of them accepting athletic scholarships, reports the Post. They were not aware of the school’s culture or history at the time they accepted the scholarships, they told the Post.
Among them is Keniya Lee, who attended VMI on a soccer scholarship and graduated last year. She told the Post about an incident in a business class taught by E. Susan Kellogg in which the professor, who is white, gleefully described attending KKK parties and recounted how, as a high schooler, her friends would drive around looking for racial minorities (“people who don’t belong”) to “bop” on the head.
“KKK parties were the best parties ever, they had candy, clowns, games, and meetings were held there,” Kellogg recounted, according to a memo Lee wrote shortly after the class.
The professor also recounted her first experiences meeting Black people, which she says didn’t happen until she was in college.
“I didn’t know if they bathed, what clothes they wore, how they ate, what they ate, if they could read, study, or even had the ability to learn,” Kellogg also reportedly told the class.
In a recent interview with the Post, Kellogg clarified that “bopping” racial minorities meant striking Black people and other people of color on the back of the head with two-by-four pieces of wood. While she didn’t personally do that, her friends did, she said.
Kellogg didn’t deny Lee’s allegations, saying she was surprised that Lee would be so upset by her stories. In fact, she waded through some of the same territory, telling the Post that KKK parties were a “delight” to go to and described the scent of her father’s robes: “They smelled like firewood, and it was the nicest smell in the world,” the VMI professor said.
“I was sorry she was feeling threatened because that was not the intention at all,” Kellogg told the paper. “But I was surprised she was upset. Young people are fairly quick to make judgments. She was lacking in some perspective.”