VMI superintendent resigns amid racism probe
Retired U.S. Army Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III resigns after 17 years
Following Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s announcement of a probe into allegations of racism at Virginia Military Institute, the school’s superintendent, retired U.S. Army Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, has resigned.
In a letter dated Oct. 26, Peay said that the probe announced by Gov. Ralph Northam and other top state legislators into allegations of racism at VMI in Lexington conveyed that they “had lost confidence in my leadership” and “therefore desired my resignation.” The letter is addressed to John Boland, president of the VMI board of visitors. Peay, who is white, is a 1962 VMI graduate who has served as superintendent since 2003.
Boland also issued a statement reading that the board “accepted [Peay’s resignation] with deep regret,” and that the board of visitors would “immediately turn its attention to the search for our new superintendent.” VMI spokesperson Bill Wyatt did not immediately respond to questions from Virginia Business about the process and timeline for selecting a new superintendent.
An Oct. 17 Washington Post exposé alleged that there is an atmosphere of “relentless racism at the nation’s oldest state-supported military college.” Two days later, Northam and other top state legislators announced that they were “directing an independent, third-party review of VMI culture, policies, practices and equity in disciplinary procedures.” A “nonpartisan, national organization” will conduct the review and report findings before the end of 2020, to allow for “any necessary legislative action” by the General Assembly during its 2021 session, which begins in January.
In The Washington Post story, a Black freshman recounted being told by a white sophomore that he’d be lynched and his corpse would be used “as a punching bag” in 2018 during Hell Week, a punishing 10-day rite of passage that introduces students to the military discipline, drill and physical fitness expectations required of them. Another episode the Post mentioned was a 2017 photo depicting the school’s commandant of cadets dressed in a Halloween costume as President Donald Trump’s border wall with the words “No Cholos” – a slur against Mexicans.
“This culture is unacceptable for any Virginia institution in the 21st century, especially one funded by taxpayers. Virginians expect all universities — and particularly public universities established by the General Assembly — to be welcoming and inclusive, and to eschew outdated traditions that glamorize a history rooted in rebellion against the United States,” states the letter issued by state legislators, among them Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax; Attorney General Mark Herring; Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn; Senate Majority Leader Richard Saslaw; House Majority Leader Charniele Herring; state Sen. and Senate President Louise Lucas; state Sen. Mamie Locke (head of the Senate Democratic Caucus); Del. Lamont Bagby (chair, Legislative Black Caucus); House Appropriations Committee Chair Del. Luke Torian; and Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee Chair Sen. Janet Howell.
“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 also reads. “In addition, VMI cadets continue to be educated in a physical environment 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.”
Northam, a VMI graduate, has focused on racial equity issues since a photo surfaced from his 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook page showing a person in blackface next to a person in a Klan robe. After initially admitting he was in the picture, Northam later recanted, but said he had once dressed as Michael Jackson and applied shoe polish to his face for a dance contest. Herring also admitted to wearing blackface to a party in his past; Fairfax has contended with allegations of sexual assault. In September, Fairfax announced that he was running for governor in 2021. Herring is running for reelection as attorney general. All three are Democrats.
In response to the Northam letter, Boland issued a letter of his own on Oct. 20, stating that he welcomed “an objective, independent review of VMI’s culture and the Institute’s handling of allegations of racism and/or discrimination.”
The letter states that administrators have already begun a review of nearly 30 operational elements and that the “way forward was thoroughly reviewed and discussed at the September 2020 Board of Visitors meeting and was endorsed as a path toward ensuring an Institute free from racism and discrimination.” It also states that “systemic racism doesn’t exist here and a fair and independent review will find that to be true.”
“The incidents detailed in The Washington Post article, several of which are many years old, had more to do with an individual’s lapse of judgment than they do with the culture of the institute,” the Boland letter reads. “Each one, as is the case with any allegation of racism or discrimination, was investigated thoroughly and appropriate action was meted out in a timely fashion. These incidents were perpetrated by few individuals and were in no way condoned by the institute.”
In a tweet on Oct. 24, former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder called on Northam “to immediately remove and replace the leadership [at VMI],” including the board of visitors, or resign from office. Wilder was the nation’s first elected African American governor and the first Black governor in America since Reconstruction.
After the announcement of Peay’s resignation, Wilder tweeted, “It appears that my call has been met with the superintendent’s resignation. That is not enough, the culture at VMI needs to be changed. This should have been brought about by the Board of Visitors and still needs … to be done.”
It appears that my call has been met with the Superintendent’s resignation. That is not enough, the culture at VMI needs to be changed. This should have been brought about by the Board of Visitors and still needs so to be done. https://t.co/IwuxK7d566
— L. Douglas Wilder (@GovernorWilder) October 26, 2020
Founded in 1839, VMI has been called “The West Point of the South,” and is the oldest state-supported military college in the country. Stonewall Jackson joined VMI’s faculty in 1851 as a professor of natural and experimental philosophy, a precursor to natural science. During the Civil War, the Confederacy called on cadets to take part in military engagements, including the Battle of New Market, where 247 members of the VMI Corps of Cadets fought.
Famous VMI alumni include naval officer and explorer Rear Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd Jr., General of the Army George Marshall Jr., and Lt. Gen. Lewis Burwell “Chesty” Puller, the most decorated Marine in American history.
VMI was the last U.S. military college to admit women after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 7-1 decision in June 1996 that it was unconstitutional for a school supported by public funds to exclude women.