Was There a Real Lynching Threat at VMI?

By January 3, 2022Blog

The subject of lynching, or “lynch law” as it was also called, is a decidedly unpleasant and, often, a morally repugnant, topic. The term lynching has been used more broadly than as a synonym for death at the end of a rope at the hands of a violent mob to include other forms of vigilante activity such as shootings or other forms of killing. Despite the extreme unpleasantness, some familiarity with the history of lynching in America and, specifically, in Virginia is essential to one’s ability to place in proper context an incident that took place at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in August 2018 and that has been referred to on numerous occasions since late 2020. In fact, it probably is the case that if one has heard of only a single charge or assertion made against VMI in the last 18 months, it most likely is the lynching threat.

One recent study of lynching – focused on black military veterans in America – covered the time period of roughly 1880 to 1950. The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama – my hometown for the last 25 years – produced a short study entitled, Lynching in America. The study surveyed the phenomenon of the lynching of U.S. black veterans beginning in the period following emancipation and the end of the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877). The EJI viewed such lynchings as representative of a new system of “racial inequality and abuse” that arose during the latter nineteenth century and continued through the aftermath of World War Two, in which black veterans were targeted for mistreatment, or worse, sometimes merely for having the audacity to wear their military uniforms in public upon their return home. Many accounts were disturbing to read, some of the details outrageous, offering undeniable evidence of the unwillingness of a number of communities – not only in the South – to show the civility and respect to black military veterans that they granted white veterans. The purpose of EJI in sponsoring the study stemmed from its conviction that “understanding the persecution of African American veterans is an important step towards understanding the extent [to which] racial violence and hatred terrorized black Americans in the century following emancipation.”[1]

In one case in August 1898, Private James Neely, in an “all-black regiment that had just returned from heralded service in Cuba,” visited the town of Hampton, Georgia, on a day pass from his nearby post. Neely wore his uniform into the drug store where he ordered a soda. The white owner told him he had to place his order and to drink his soda outside the store. When the soldier protested, “Private Neely was thrown out of the store and onto the street outside, where the conflict attracted attention.” Neely continued to insist “that he had rights as an American and a soldier, [and] a crowd of armed white men gathered and chased him down the road, firing their weapons.” Later, Private Neely was found dead from gunshot wounds. No one was held responsible, and army officials delayed in retrieving the soldier’s body.[2]

Following the First World War, the summer of 1919 became known as Red Summer on account of some two dozen “anti-black riots” that broke out in major U.S. cities, including Houston, East St. Louis, Chicago, Washington (D.C.), Omaha, and Charleston (South Carolina). In a study of the causes and extent of Red Summer, Dr. George Edmund Haynes – the first black to earn a doctorate in economics from Columbia University, and the founder of the National Urban League – concluded, “. . . the persistence of unpunished lynching” contributed to whites’ mob violence and black veterans’ determination to defend themselves. Haynes wrote, “In such a state of public mind, a trivial incident can precipitate a riot.” The EJI found that after World War One, no less than 13 black veterans were lynched.[3]

Just after the Second World War, in August 1946 a black veteran, J.C. Farmer, was laughing with two friends while waiting for a bus in Wilson, North Carolina. “When a police officer ordered Mr. Farmer into his patrol car, [Farmer] replied that he had done nothing wrong. The policeman struck him on the head, and in the ensuing struggle, the officer’s gun went off, shooting the white officer through the hand. Within an hour, a lynch mob had formed and Mr. Farmer was dead,” the EJI reported. Farmer’s death certificate stated the cause of death was, “Shot by officer of law in gun duel.” Accounts indicated there was no duel, however.[4]

The foregoing incidents are merely a sad sampling of the historical record. In another study of lynching, focused on Virginia, the Encyclopedia Virginia estimated that nationwide there were between four and five thousand lynchings from 1880 to the middle of the twentieth century. Most were of blacks in the South. In Virginia, of about 106 lynchings during the period, 89 victims were black. As indicated by the numbers, not all lynchings were of blacks. In one instance, in November 1893 a mob that lynched a white farmer in Charlotte County included some blacks. Two years earlier in New Orleans, “in one of the largest lynchings in U.S. history,” eleven Italian-Americans, caught up in the aftermath of the murder of a popular police chief, were shot and mutilated in front of a cheering crowd.[5]

In a third study, historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage’s work on lynching in the New South concluded that the number of lynchings were fewer in Virginia than in any other Southern State “for the simple reason that white Virginians believed that racial boundaries could be maintained without the need to resort to persistent violence.” In comparison with much of the South, Virginia’s pattern of small farms – which minimized the practice of sharecropping or tenant farming – coupled with less social and economic instability, contributed to fewer acts of lynchings or mob violence, Brundage wrote. Of the 86 lynchings documented in Virginia between 1880 and 1930, 55 occurred in the Piedmont, Tidewater, and Southside regions. The Shenandoah Valley had the fewest lynchings of any region in the State: only two. Of course, that was two more than ought to have occurred, but the evidence was far from suggesting a cultural acceptance of lynching in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley – in which VMI is situated. Well over half a century later, when a VMI cadet used the word “lynch” in a heated moment of exasperation with a (first-year, or, rather, first-week) Rat, there was zero cultural expectation that the word was to be taken as a real threat.[6]

. . . Fast-forward to the last three years regarding VMI. A recent Google search under, “lynching threat VMI,” produced a plethora of hits. Of the first 50 hits, only one article predated the month of October 2020; a Washington Post article in 1993, entitled, “Racist Threats Come Between Cadets at VMI,” in which a black cadet was quoted: “All schools have race problems. . . . I think it’s something we have to deal with.” Compared with much of the reporting 27 or so years later, those words were remarkable for their reasoned, plausible tone. The obvious reason all schools could rightly be said to have race problems – assuming a racial mix in the student body existed in the first place – is because all schools are populated by flawed individuals. In an earlier day when the people knew their Bibles, such individuals were called sinners. Beginning with the writer, all who read these words qualify. (Biblical literacy was such that when Andrew Jackson, angry over the national bank controversy of the 1830s, raged that he would hang his political opponents “as high as Haman,” most Americans knew that he alluded to the Old Testament Book of Esther.) As the cadet in 1993 rightly indicated, racism is something “we have to deal with.” Alas, there is no utopia on earth.

Nothing in the 1993 article suggested what could properly be called “structural” or “systemic” racism, meaning racism built into the structure or fabric of the school itself. Rather, what the article described were acts of individual racism, those occasional but no less offensive acts of racism – or using the Bible’s term, partiality – that will always, to some degree, mark a community comprised of imperfect people. Despite the reports of racial threats at VMI, there was no lynching threat mentioned in the piece. The words “lynch” or “lynching” were not used. There has been no fear of actual lynching or threats of lynching in Lexington, Virginia.

Then on October 17, 2020, a serious deviation from reality began. Ian Shapira’s Washington Post piece, entitled, “At VMI, Black cadets endure lynching threats, Klan memories and Confederacy veneration,” became the catalyst for incessant charges against VMI in the months that followed. Foremost among those were charges leveled by the governor of Virginia, who, two days later, wrote to the VMI Board of Visitors to charge his alma mater with a “clear and appalling culture of ongoing structural racism.” Undoubtedly based on Shapira’s article which referred to such threats in the plural, the governor referred to “revelations of threats about lynching” (plural). He called for an “independent, third-party” investigation of racism at VMI. One of the glaring, unanswered questions has been this: how could the governor be so certain of a clear, appalling culture of structural racism prior to any investigation taking place?[7]

On December 21, 2020, another Shapira WaPo piece, entitled, “A Black VMI cadet was threatened with a lynching, then with expulsion,” highlighted the story of Rafael Jenkins, who as a Rat in 2018, “was threatened with a lynching” during so-called Hell Week at VMI. This was the same story alluded to on October 17. Details from the December 21 article were as follows:

  1. Earlier in the week – comprising the first several days of the cadetship of an incoming group of VMI Rats, fresh from civilian life – Jenkins had responded appropriately, as is required of all Rats, when told to recite the names of the ten cadets who died at the Battle of New Market in May 1864.
  2. On the day in question, however, Jenkins decided not to comply. In other words, Rat Jenkins – on perhaps his third, or maybe his fifth or seventh day at VMI – decided he knew better than the upperclassman responsible for overseeing this small portion of his training. By Shapira’s account, Jenkins “chugged from his hydration pack, assuming the upper class enforcers wouldn’t stop him from drinking water.” Note that Jenkins by his own words acknowledged that he knew what he was doing was against the rules. The account continued, “Then a White sophomore Jenkins didn’t know saw what he was doing. The cadet got up in his face and said firmly into his ear: ‘Jenkins, if you don’t sound off, I’m going to lynch you . . . and use your dead corpse as a punching bag.”
  3. The third classman’s choice of the word “lynch” was a poor one. It was also about the furthest thing imaginable from a legitimate threat of any sort. Most former VMI cadets or alumni who haven’t blocked the earliest part of their Rat experience from memory will recognize that the third classman was doing what Rat Cadre traditionally have been expected to do – that is, to enforce the rigorous training and discipline of the VMI Ratline, immediately and without delay. It is the thing required in order for Rats to learn from day one at VMI that they are not the hot stuff many of them think they are when they waltz into the school as 18-year-olds.

In fact, as I read the article, I was transported back to August 1976. I could almost shudder, hearing my Rat Cadre corporals addressing me or one of my poor fellow creatures in Bravo Company. But I’m grateful for them today, for what they were teaching us in those earliest days as Rats. In 1977, I followed in their steps as a Rat Cadre corporal. I honestly don’t recall the terms I may have used with an earlier version of a recalcitrant, arrogant Rat like Jenkins.

Such language as the third classman used four decades later with the real Jenkins was probably entirely irrespective of the Rat’s pigmentation. What mattered was that he was dealing with a Rat who required immediate correction. None of this is rocket science, and it’s the same basic approach taken by military indoctrination and other specialized training programs. There is not a case anywhere in which the recruit gets to decide what rules he likes and will follow and what rules he doesn’t like and won’t do. The system – which has proven quite successful – doesn’t work that way.

  1. About a week later, the third classman and Jenkins were brought before the cadet-run Executive Committee. The Rat Cadre was aware that certain words or phrases were not acceptable to use with Rats, and perhaps a violation had been reported. Or perhaps word of the incident had reached VMI officials who requested the cadet committee investigate the matter. Regardless, the third classman apologized to Jenkins, doing so in person. He expressed remorse, according to Shapira. Jenkins was quoted as saying, “He said he got caught up in the moment and he didn’t mean it,” which was, of course, the simplest and most obvious explanation. A witness recalled, his “hands were shaking. He’d never said anything like that before in his life. He apologized directly to the rat.”

Readers should not miss, however, that the original misbehavior of Rat Jenkins in refusing to sound off with Rat Bible knowledge when appropriately directed to do so seemed to be forgotten. In fact, both cadets were at fault: Jenkins for failing to follow a proper order on Rat Bible knowledge; the third classman for using an offensive term with a Rat. In the end, the upperclassman was suspended for one year, an incredibly harsh censure for a momentary act of poor judgment and for which he realized his error and did the right thing afterwards. Neither of the two young men was to graduate from VMI. But perhaps even more important, the third classman seemed to learn from his momentary error in judgment. Unfortunately, Jenkins seems not to have learned anything from his. According to Shapira, Jenkins continued to harbor ill sentiment toward the upperclassman, taking it upon himself to judge the motive of his one-time antagonist. To put it plainly, Jenkins did what no man has the right to do in the absence of clear, corroborating information: judging another’s motive. As VMI 1979 graduate, and a corporate chaplain, Henry Rogers, observed, “In a woke cancel culture, they can read your mind and know your heart. What I would tell Rafael Jenkins is this: if you don’t forgive, you will never heal.”

Since those consequential days of October 2020 a number of articles and reports of racism at VMI have referred to “lynching threats” at the school – when it appears they ought instead to have referred to a single incident (August 2018), one in which no rational person who grasps the VMI context could possibly consider the word “lynch” to have constituted a legitimate threat. No more than 15 seconds of reflection ought to make clear that the word was spoken in the heat of the moment while training a group of new recruits, called Rats. The “threat” was used to correct the behavior of an errant Rat. Was the incident tolerated by VMI? No, it was not. The offending cadet received a severe punishment. How is it, then, that such an incident may be taken and employed to promote fantastic tales of a culture of structural racism, one may ask? To the honest, informed evaluator, there is no question as to whether there was a real lynching threat made at VMI. There was not. Not even close.

[1] Lynching in America: Targeting Black Veterans (Montgomery, Ala.: Equal Justice Initiative, 2017), 7-8.

[2] Lynching in America, 21-22.

[3] Lynching in America, 30-31, 36; Gabrielle Hutchins, “Dr. George Edmund Haynes: Social Crusader in Black Economics,” National Archives, [posted to Rediscovering Black History], July 2020.

[4] Lynching in America, 60; “Aug. 3, 1946: J.C. Farmer Killed,” Zinn Education Project, 2021. Multiple accounts indicated that Farmer was killed by gunfire outside his family’s home.

[5] “Lynching in Virginia,” Encyclopedia Virginia, [Virginia Humanities], 2020; Erin Blakemore, “The Grisly Story of One of America’s Largest Lynching[s],” History.com, Oct. 25, 2017 [updated Sep. 1, 2018].

[6] “Lynching in Virginia,” Encyclopedia Virginia; W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880-1930 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993).

[7] Forrest L. Marion, “An Independent Investigation of Racism at VMI?” Abbeville Institute, Feb. 10, 2021, accessed at https://www.abbevilleinstitute.org/an-independent-investigation-of-racism-at-vmi/.

Forrest L. Marion

Forrest L. Marion graduated from the Virginia Military Institute with a BS degree in civil engineering. He earned an MA in military history from the University of Alabama and a doctorate in American history from the University of Tennessee. Since 1998, Dr. Marion has served as a staff historian and oral historian at the Air Force Historical Research Agency, Maxwell AFB, Alabama. Commissioned in 1980, he retired from the U.S. Air Force Reserve in 2010. Forrest L. Marion graduated from the Virginia Military Institute with a BS degree in civil engineering. He earned an MA in military history from the University of Alabama and a doctorate in American history from the University of Tennessee.

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