At VMI, Black cadets endure lynching threats, Klan memories and Confederacy veneration

Emilee Geist

“I wake up every day wondering, ‘Why am I still here?’ ” said William Bunton, 20, a Black senior from Portsmouth, Va. Keniya Lee, a 2019 VMI graduate, lodged a complaint last year against a White professor who reminisced in class about her father’s Ku Klux Klan membership. The woman […]

“I wake up every day wondering, ‘Why am I still here?’ ” said William Bunton, 20, a Black senior from Portsmouth, Va.

Keniya Lee, a 2019 VMI graduate, lodged a complaint last year against a White professor who reminisced in class about her father’s Ku Klux Klan membership. The woman still teaches at the Lexington, Va., campus, which received $19 million in state funds this past fiscal year.

In 2018, a White sophomore told a Black freshman during Hell Week that he’d “lynch” his body and use his “dead corpse as a punching bag” — but was suspended instead of expelled.

In March, after a Black sophomore objected to incorporating Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s image into the design of their class ring, a fellow student denounced him by name on an anonymous chat app: “F—ing leave already. People like you are the reason this school is divided. Stop focusing so much on your skin color and focus on yourself as a person. Nobody i[n] your recent family line was oppressed by ‘muh slavery.’ ”

In September, when Vice President Pence gave a speech on campus, Bunton and another Black student boycotted the event — and were each punished with three weeks of confinement on campus, demerits and multiple hours of detention.

Now the school is under pressure from some alumni and students to remove or relocate its Confederate statues — including one of Jackson — and reconsider its long-held reverence for the Confederacy.

Until a few years ago, freshmen were required to salute the Jackson statue, which sits in front of the student barracks.

In a July letter to the school community, retired Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, the school’s superintendent, defended the statue of Jackson, who taught at VMI and owned six enslaved people, because he was a “military genius” and a “staunch Christian.” But Peay, who is White, also said he wanted to “erase any hint of racism at VMI” and diversify the overwhelmingly White administrative hierarchy, faculty and student body.

Peay declined a request to discuss the campus’s climate for minorities or the specific allegations of racism from students and alumni.

In a statement to The Washington Post, Peay, a 1962 VMI graduate who has been superintendent since 2003, said: “There is no place for racism or discrimination at VMI” and promised that “any allegation of racism or discrimination will be investigated and appropriately punished, if substantiated.”

He expressed puzzlement that Black students had complaints about the school’s atmosphere, saying that in the wake of the George Floyd protests, “I sought out the experiences of our alumni and tried to understand this notion that some cadets — because of the color of their skin — had a different VMI experience than others.”

About 8 percent of VMI’s 1,700 students are Black. Many are athletes who said they weren’t fully aware of the school’s history or racial climate when they accepted scholarships.

“I always felt uncomfortable and that I didn’t belong at VMI,” said Lee, who played soccer at the school and now works as a Wells Fargo global products manager in Charlotte. “My time at VMI gave me PTSD, and I haven’t healed yet.”

VMI administrators have been among those involved in racist incidents. In 2017, Col. William Wanovich, the school’s commandant of cadets, appeared in a Halloween photo of cadets dressed up in boxes as President Trump’s border wall with the words “Keep Out” and “No Cholos,” a slur against Mexicans. Wanovich, a member of the Class of 1987, didn’t return a message seeking comment. At the time, VMI said the costume was “in poor taste” and “offensive” but has since declined to reveal whether Wanovich was ever disciplined.

In March, Carmelo Echevarria Colon III, a former battalion operations and training sergeant who had been at the school since 2012, posted an insult against ­low-income Black people on the Rev. Al Sharpton’s Facebook page. Then, in June, he condemned the Black Lives Matter movement in another Facebook post that was screenshot and surfaced on Twitter: “I am seeing all these clowns taking a knee and bowing to [protest]. I’ll take a knee alright. To maximize my shooting platform.”

Colon, who left the school the next month, did not return messages seeking comment.

Bill Wyatt, a VMI spokesman, said that the school cannot publicly discuss personnel matters and that federal law bars the college from talking about cadet disciplinary actions. “We hold our professors to the same high standards of integrity, honor, respect and civility to which we hold our cadets,” he said.

‘The best parties’

Lee was sitting in the classroom of E. Susan Kellogg, an adjunct business professor, last year when the teacher began talking about her late father, who she said belonged to the Ku Klux Klan in the 1930s.

“KKK parties were the best parties ever, they had candy, clowns, games, and meetings were held there,” Kellogg told the class, according to a memo that Lee wrote three days afterward and that she later delivered to administrators and posted on Twitter in June.

Then Kellogg, a former Maryland state insurance commissioner, recounted how she and her high school friends in Ohio drove around their all-White neighborhood “looking for people who didn’t belong” — racial minorities — in order to “bop” them on the head, Lee wrote. Kellogg also told the class that she had little to no contact with Black people until she went to 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 said, according to Lee’s memo.

Lee, the only Black person in the classroom, cried afterward, she said. But she hesitated to complain to VMI authorities for fear she’d face retribution. When she wrote up her account, she asked her White classmates if they’d sign it as witnesses. All of them refused, she said.

Eventually, Lee complained to administrators, and Kellogg was asked to apologize.

“How come she couldn’t see I was uncomfortable with her bragging about the KKK who still terrorizes Black people to this day?” Lee asked. “She couldn’t even pronounce my name right. She kept calling me Kenya.”

In an interview with The Post, Kellogg, 75, confirmed Lee’s account in her memo, with one exception: She said growing up she did not “bop” minorities, which she described as striking Blacks and other people of color with two-by-four pieces of wood. Instead, her friends did, she said.

“I was sorry she was feeling threatened because that was not the intention at all,” Kellogg said. “But I was surprised she was upset. Young people are fairly quick to make judgments. She was lacking in some perspective.”

Kellogg said she talked about her past because conversations about diversity and racism were dominating the campus, and she believed it was “important for students to understand that people change and that you can’t crucify me based on my father’s history.”

But it’s not clear if Kellogg’s late father was actually in the Klan.

“To say our father was in the KKK is an abomination. It’s complete fiction,” Kellogg’s older sister, Marilyn Smith, told The Post. “The family doesn’t talk with her because she tells such horrendous lies.”

Kellogg told The Post that the Klan parties were a “delight to go to.” As a child, she said, she once found her father’s KKK robes. “They smelled like firewood, and it was the nicest smell in the world,” the VMI teacher said.

‘It wrecked me’

VMI was founded in 1839, and its first superintendent was Francis H. Smith, a U.S. Military Academy graduate who owned nine enslaved people on the eve of the Civil War. He thought slavery should be abolished one day — and then “Blacks should be resettled in Africa,” according to a retired VMI historian.

A bronze statue of Smith stands in front of the school’s administration building, Smith Hall.

The school’s other hero: Stonewall Jackson.

In 1861, Jackson left his position teaching physics at VMI to help lead the Confederate army. He died May 10, 1863, from complications after another Confederate soldier or soldiers accidentally shot him.

The following year, at the Battle of New Market, Va., 257 VMI cadets fought the Union army. Ten died, and several of them have their remains buried in the foundation of a statue on the campus’s Parade Ground.

In 1968, VMI became the last public college in the state to integrate, admitting five Black students. (It took a 1996 Supreme Court decision — written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — to end its resistance to allowing women to attend.)

VMI didn’t do much to make Black students feel welcome in the 1960s and ’70s. First-year cadets had to salute the Jackson statue. Confederate flags were common. “Dixie” was played at football games. The 1968 edition of the yearbook — partly overseen by current Virginia Senate Republican leader Tommy Norment, Class of 1968 — was filled with students in blackface and the use of the n-word.

Finnie Coleman, a former Black cadet and, later, an instructor in the 1990s, said White and Black students routinely called the Black janitors “stoopies.” Later in his freshman year, Coleman learned that the term was a shortened version of “stoop n-word” — a slur that White cadets once used and that appears frequently in the student newspaper archives.

“When I learned that,” said Coleman, now a professor at the University of New Mexico, “it wrecked me.”

‘The final straw’

In interviews, current and recent Black students said coaches wooing them with Division I scholarships didn’t discuss the school’s racist history and traditions.

Then they arrived and had to memorize the names of the VMI cadets who died for the Confederacy at New Market. They had to reenact the Confederate charge across the New Market battlefield. (The school just announced it was ending the reenactments.) They had to walk past the Jackson statue everyday and watch visitors surround it with Confederate flags on Lee-Jackson Day in January. They had to endure hearing the n-word or seeing it used online by White cadets.

Wyatt said the school does not hide its landmarks from prospective cadets, and VMI’s customs honoring the Confederacy are meant to emphasize “a call to service . . . not the political issues of the time.”

Still, the atmosphere takes a toll on Black students.

Nearly three years ago, the school lost one of its best football players Kuony (pronounced “Coin”) Deng, whose parents were South Sudanese refugees who settled in Northern Virginia. Deng ultimately landed at UC-Berkeley, where he has NFL prospects.

“The Halloween Trump Wall, that was the final straw for me,” he said.

After that incident, Tyriuq Trotman, who graduated last year, applied to become an officer with the school’s Cadet Equity Association, a group of students that investigates discrimination and harassment complaints. Later that summer, he got his first big case: the White sophomore who told a Black freshman that he’d “lynch” him and “use his dead corpse as a punching bag.”

The White student initially lied about the incident before confessing, Trotman said. VMI’s honor code is strict: It bars lying, cheating or stealing. Any breach results in dismissal.

Trotman said he and the other cadet investigators recommended the student be expelled, but the administration suspended the White student for one academic year instead.

“African Americans at VMI were furious at the White student’s remarks, but they were not surprised,” said Trotman, who played football and ran track. “This was VMI’s opportunity to make an example out of what they will not tolerate. They failed. I mean, one of my Black roommates during sophomore year wore a robe in a study room and when he got caught, he gave a fake name to the VMI guard team — and then the school expelled him.”

A few days before Pence’s Sept. 10 speech, the school’s multicultural Promaji club — a mostly Black group of 80 students that also includes White and Hispanic cadets — asked Peay to reconsider the event, citing Pence’s “divisive rhetoric” on police brutality. His appearance during an election year, the group said in a letter, threatened to “perpetuate the polarization and division within our ranks.”

Peay never responded to the Promaji students, they said, though he met with the club’s faculty advisers.

After the speech, Peay talked with Promaji’s leaders, who recounted various incidents of campus racism, according to a student who attended the meeting but asked not to be named for fear of retribution.

“Peay and his staff were a little surprised,” the student said, “but they were like, ‘Let’s get a handle on this. Where do we go from here?’ ”

The school said Peay and his staff will continue holding regular sessions with Promaji cadets.

When Pence arrived, Bunton, the senior from Portsmouth, Va., decided to boycott it. When he tried walking out of line to leave, a White faculty member stopped him.

“He said I was ‘crazy,’ and ‘Who do you think you are?’ ” Bunton recalled. “I said, ‘I am a civilian and am under no legal obligation to show Pence respect. We don’t go to West Point or the Naval Academy.’ Pence’s administration is not for people who look like me.’”

Peay, in his statement to The Post, noted that the school has hosted many liberal speakers in years past, including Ginsburg.

“Attendance at a guest speaker event is not a statement of support,” Peay said, “rather a statement that one is mature enough to expose themselves to ideas that may be different from their own.”

Asked about Peay’s position, Bunton said he is plenty mature.

“What does it mean to be ‘mature’?” he asked. “Do what you’re told at all times and allow yourself to be a sheep? Is that what maturity is? I don’t think so.”

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