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Virginia, Lexington, Stonewall Jackson Statue And Cannons At Virginia Military Institute. Photo by Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Virginia Military Institute removes Confederate statue

LEXINGTON, Va. — The Virginia Military Institute removed a prominent statue of Confederate Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson on Monday, a project initiated this fall after allegations of systemic racism roiled the public college.

Around 9:45 a.m., a crane plucked the larger-than-life statue that freshmen were once required to salute off its base and slowly hoisted it to the ground. A small crowd gathered quietly on the mostly empty campus in Lexington where Jackson once taught, quietly looking on amid flurries of snow.

The school's board voted to remove the statue in late October after The Washington Post published a story that described an "atmosphere of hostility and cultural insensitivity" at VMI, the oldest state-supported military college in the U.S. The piece detailed incidents such as lynching threats and a white professor reminiscing in class about her father's Ku Klux Klan membership.

The Post's story also led to the ouster of VMI's superintendent, retired Army Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, and prompted state officials to commit to hiring an outside firm to investigate the students' allegations.

Since Peay's departure, VMI announced Cedric Wins, a retired U.S. Army major general, would serve as its interim superintendent, becoming the first Black leader to serve in that role. The school's board has also committed to other changes, including creating a permanent diversity office.

"The history of VMI over the past 181 years is well documented. Stonewall Jackson's ties to Lexington and the Institute as an instructor are part of that history," Wins said in a statement Monday. But "VMI does not define itself by this statue and that is why this move is appropriate," he added.

VMI said it will be relocated to a nearby Civil War museum at a battlefield where dozens of VMI cadets were killed or wounded. It was to be taken to storage Monday while work continued to remove the pedestal and prepare the new site, school spokesman Bill Wyatt said.

The statue had previously been a subject of controversy, but the school had committed to keeping it in place in front of VMI's spartan, historic barracks as recently as July.

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.

"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. Stonewall Jackson was a professor at VMI, a West Point graduate who served in combat in the Mexican War, a military genius, a staunch Christian, and yes, a Confederate General," Peay wrote in July.

Change was also slow to come to VMI in the 1990s, when the school spent six years and millions of dollars in a high-profile fight against federal efforts to force it to admit women.

The Supreme Court eventually ruled that if the school accepts tax money it must accept women. Its board voted 9-8 to accept women rather than go private and stay all-male, ending VMI's long quest to be the last state-supported college to exclude women.

In 2015, VMI did away with requiring freshmen to salute the statue each time they passed it, Wyatt said.

The statue was given to VMI in 1912 by its sculptor, Sir Moses Ezekiel, VMI's first Jewish cadet and a veteran of the Battle of New Market, VMI said in a news release. Its removal and relocation to the Virginia Museum of the Civil War and New Market Battlefield State Historical Park will cost $209,000, funds to be paid out of VMI's facility maintenance and operations account.

Carolyn Worrell, whose late husband graduated from VMI in 1962, was among a handful of people who gathered to watch the work Monday. The school had not publicly disclosed that the removal would be taking place, and Worrell said she hurried over when she got word.

Worrell, who is white, said she didn't think the Post's reporting had accurately portrayed the school, which her son also attended.

"It is the Democratic Party's power quest that has caused this entire thing. They are vilifying history. They are trying to do away with history," she said.

In his statement, Wins said it would be an "understatement" to say that the decision to remove the statue had evoked strong opinions on both sides of the issue.

"Time and again over the past 181 years, the Institute has adapted and changed. Each time, we have become a better, stronger institution," he said.

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