The Virginia Military Institute (VMI), the oldest military college in the Unites States, said on Wednesday it won’t remove Confederate statues nor rename any buildings named after Confederate leaders.
In a seven-page letter addressing all VMI community members and affiliates, superintendent Ret. Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III said while he is willing to “erase any hint of racism” on campus, the college’s history is deeply rooted with the history of Virginia and the Civil War.
“Unlike many communities who are grappling with icons of the past, VMI has direct ties to many of the historical figures that are the subject of the current unrest,” Peay said, referencing the recent trend of monuments coming down across the nation because of their connection to the Confederacy or Civil War.
The VMI’s Lexington campus prominently displays a statue of Confederate commander Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, who accepted an offer in 1851 to teach natural philosophy and artillery tactics at the college until the Civil War broke out in 1861. Jackson’s name was still carried on the VMI faculty roll at the time of his death, and he was buried in a cemetery near the VMI campus. The campus also features the New Market Monument, which honors the VMI cadets who fought at the Battle of New Market in 1864 for the Southern cause.
Two dueling online petitions were created last month regarding the fate of the Jackson statue. One petition, started by a groups of recent black VMI graduates, requested that the college “acknowledge the racism” and remove the statue. Its counter petition, which received three times the number of supporting signatures, said the monument should remain in its place as a reminder of the college’s “sacred heritage and honorable traditions.”
According to Peay, Jackson was memorialized at VMI not only as a Confederate general, but also as a faculty, Mexican War veteran, military genius, and devoted Christian. “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,” he added. “It is not to in anyway condone racism, much less slavery.”
Instead of removing traces of the Confederacy that are closely linked to VMI’s early days, Peay said the college will focus on its more recent history.
“We do not currently intend to remove any VMI statues or rename any VMI buildings,” he said. “Rather, in the future we will emphasize recognition of leaders from the Institute’s second century. 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.”
Meanwhile, VMI’s northern counterpart is also under pressure to rename buildings honoring Confederate leaders such as Robert E. Lee.
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the Democratic congressman who represents the area of West Point, New York, sent a letter co-signed by 21 other members of Congress to the U.S. Army and the Department of Defense in June, arguing that facilities at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point shouldn’t be named after those who fought under the South banner during the Civil War.
“We believe we must correct the hurtful and outdated practice of honoring at West Point certain Americans who engaged in armed rebellion against the United States in support of racism and slavery,” read the letter.