A Confederate statue on the campus of one of Virginia’s oldest institutions is finally being removed after Black students spoke out about a campus culture that literally and figuratively worshipped the graven image of white supremacy.
Construction crews gathered at Virginia Military Institute on Monday to begin the process of removing the statue of Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. The monument to the school’s most celebrated alumnus also served as the symbol for the institution’s oppression and mistreatment of its Black students ever since the 181-year-old military college integrated its ranks in 1968.
For years, VMI cadets were required to salute the Stonewall statue while “flaggers”—enthusiasts who revered the idea of a Southern white supremacist utopia—converged on the campus because, as one student told The Root: “It’s basically Confederate Disneyland.” Inspired by the George Floyd protests and annoyed by a September visit from Vice President Mike Pence, several students and Black alums began speaking out about the white supremacist culture that permeates the Lexington, Va., campus.
The Associated Press reports:
The statue had been a subject of controversy for years, but the school had committed to keeping it in place in front of VMI’s historic barracks as recently as July. VMI said it will be relocated to a nearby Civil War museum at a battlefield where dozens of VMI cadets were killed or wounded.
Amid a wave of Confederate monument removals around the country in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis, some VMI students and graduates called for the statue’s removal.
Peay said at the time that the school would change some of its longstanding traditions, such as relocating an oath ceremony from the Civil War battlefield. But he said it would not remove the statue of Jackson, who owned enslaved people, or rethink the names of buildings honoring Confederate leaders.
The statue’s removal is part of a series of major changes at the school, including the resignation of the institute’s longtime superintendent Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III and the call for an investigation by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, another VMI alumnus. Peay was replaced by Cedric Rims, the first Black superintendent to lead the school. VMI also pledged to create an office of diversity, eliminating its status as the lone state-supported college or university in Virginia without an office of inclusion or diversity.
“This institute has an incredible opportunity to have a voice of truth in this critical time and that requires taking ownership of the whole truth. Today was a very small step towards that,” cadet LeAndrew Jefferson told The Root. “I see many days like this to come in one form or another because there are people who care about the truth and moving forward.”
Contractors will reinstall the Stonewall statue at the Virginia Museum of the Civil War and New Market Battlefield State Historical Park, the site where VMI cadets annually reenact a Civil War battle before laying wreaths at the graves of the white supremacists who died in the Battle of New Market—a tradition required of first-year “rats.” In 2015, the school ended the practice of requiring rats to salute the statue.
VMI’s student body of 1,698 is six percent Black, according to the State Council of Higher Education For Virginia.
The school will need a lot more time to remove actual white supremacy from the campus.