LEXINGTON, Va. – Virginia Military Institute is removing a symbol of its history: the Stonewall Jackson monument on Post.
“It’s just crazy to actually be witnessing these changes happening right in front of your eyes,” said VMI ’20 grad Kaleb Tucker.
Tucker started an online petition after he graduated from VMI in May, asking the school to remove the statue and address racism, which is something he experienced firsthand.
“I was called the ‘N’ word all throughout VMI," said Tucker.
Tucker said he understands that people care about the history surrounding the monument.
“Even us as Blacks, we understand the values that they want to hold up. You know, Stonewall Jackson or these other Confederate traditions that they continue to uphold” said Tucker. “But the fact that they are memorialized, is just like a lingering hanging of racial injustice over our heads.”
VMI senior cadet William Bunton said that systemic racism at the school lives in symbols, just like the statue of Jackson and the Confederate general’s image on his class ring.
“We are going through society brainwashed that these things are normal. This is normalized. This is normalized and it shouldn’t be," said Bunton.
Bunton said these changes are “a step in the right direction.” However, just removing the statue is not enough.
“There’s not enough diversity, whether it be in the [command] staff, whether it be on the investigation staff, or whether it be even in the student body,” said Bunton. “There’s not enough women and there’s not enough people of color.”
Bunton said the worst of the discriminatory comments and racial slurs happen on an app called Jodel, pronounced ‘yodel.' It provides an online forum where people, including cadets, can make anonymous comments. On the app, Bunton said that cadets have talked about protecting the statue at all costs and putting up a 24/7 guard.
“[Jackson] means nothing good in terms of connotation for people who look like me or my ancestors," said Bunton. “I get it’s history, but there’s no reason to idolize this guy. They’re worshipping him like he’s biblical.”
Parents of black cadets, including Kelvin, who did not want to share his last name in order to protect his son who is a senior at VMI, said he was happily surprised by the board’s decision.
“I feel excited. I think it is definitely a first step, a move in a positive direction," said Kelvin.
Alumni on the other side of the issue said the monument carries a different meaning.
“It represents the heritage of VMI,” said Jeremy Sanders, VMI ’15.
Sanders started an opposing petition to defend the Jackson monument, calling the board’s decision disappointing and ‘an act of shameless cowardice.'
“I’m not saying that there’s not individual acts of racism, because unfortunately there are evil and corrupt people wherever you go in society," said Sanders. "Singling single instances out and calling them, saying that the entire school, painting the entire school that way is an injustice to the school.”
Sanders said he is from Pennsylvania and his ancestors fought for the Union, so he does not have a “lost cause” manner of thinking or Confederate leanings. Though he said that there is a heritage at VMI and that Stonewall Jackson should not be viewed through a 21st century lens.
“How is removing a statue fighting racism or how does that stand up against racism,” said Sanders. “It’s much larger than the Jackson statue. That’s just a focal point right now. That’s just the symbolism of the larger issue.”
2015 VMI graduate Khwan Khanhansuk, who is originally from Thailand, said he’s sad to hear that some of his fellow cadets felt victimized by racism, but he did not have the same experience.
“Keeping the statue or taking it down is not going to make anything different to me, especially taking it down. It’s not going to make anything better at all," said Khanhansuk. “Yesterday is our past, our history. Today is our present and tomorrow is our future. We live with these facts every day.”
Sanders is asking alumni to voice their concerns and pull their donations.
“I’ve donated pretty much every year since I graduated from VMI and I will no longer be doing so, so long as they continue these radical, ‘woke’ policies that are attacking the core of what VMI stands for, which is on integrity," said Sanders.
However, for these Black cadets and alumni, they hope this is just the start.
“Sexism on Post may be the same, if not more prevalent than racism,” said Bunton.
“I hope and pray that within those steps, it’s not just appeasement, but I hope it’s a true commitment to change,” said Tucker.