Colleges and universities across the country are grappling with racist images within their yearbooks following the discovery of a photo depicting a man in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan (KKK) robes on Va. Governor Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page.
While he now denies appearing in the photo, Northam admitted to wearing blackface on another occasion. Many Virginians, including Virginia House Democrats and the Republican Party of Virginia, have called for his resignation. Northam has refused to step down.
Many colleges and universities, including the University of North Carolina, Arizona State University and American University, have since commissioned internal reviews of past yearbooks to search for racist images. USA Today reviewed 900 yearbooks across 120 colleges and universities in 25 different states and found numerous photos depicting blackface, KKK robes and mock lynchings.
During a review of its own archives, Hopkins officials discovered racist photos in editions of the Hullabaloo, the discontinued University yearbook. The News-Letter found a 1981 photo depicting a student in blackface and a 1961 picture showing three people in KKK robes.
Hopkins officials responded to the racist yearbook pictures in a statement to The News-Letter.
“These photos reflect the deeply painful racial history of our nation, our city, and our institution, and serve as a harrowing reminder of the past we must continually grapple with and the important work we are doing to ensure this history is never repeated,” the statement read.
Herbert Baxter Adams Professor Nathan Connolly explained the historical implications of blackface and how it reinforces stereotypes of black people.
“You need to have blackface as a way to get black people as you imagined them: saying things you need them to say and behaving in ways that you need them to behave,” he said. “You have a hard time getting black people to play certain stereotypes, but you can make a ‘black person’ say whatever you want if you put on black face and then embody that person.”
Connolly recently addressed blackface on the history podcast Backstory, which he co-hosts. His own research and teaching focuses on Jim Crow segregation, racism and politics. Connolly explained that the term “Jim Crow,“ which refers to legalized racial segregation in America, came from a common character in minstrel shows put on by white actors in blackface.
The harmful stereotypes promoted by minstrel shows and blackface were dehumanizing, Connolly explained, and led to violence against black people.
“Practices of minstrelsy went hand in hand with the lynching tree and the forced exile of black people from their communities and with the sexual assault of black female domestics,” he said. “There are all manner of stereotypes and dehumanization that must occur at an everyday level... to make certain kinds of violence acceptable. Once you turn a human being into a stereotype, it becomes that much easier to enact violence on that person.”
In an email to The News-Letter, junior Alyssa Thomas, a black student, explained why she thinks blackface can be harmful.
“When prominent figures dress in blackface... it reinforces a racial hierarchy. It perpetuates the commodification of the black existence and supports this idea that blackness is entertaining or for entertainment,” she wrote. “Plenty of people enjoy the contributions blacks have made and continue to make to music, arts, sports, fashion, but some of these same people don’t want to hear us when we speak on issues plaguing our communities.”
Thomas clarified that while she has not witnessed blackface or offensive Halloween costumes herself, she wouldn’t be surprised if such instances were common on campus.
President of the Black Student Union (BSU) Chisom Okereke acknowledged that instances of overt racism, such as those depicted in the yearbook photos, are less common today. However, she emphasized that continuing to improve race relations on campus should be a goal of the University.
“Compared to the 80s and the 60s when these pictures are from, there’s a lot more shame associated with being so outwardly racist,” she said.
Graduate student Vikram Chandrashekhar agreed that today, students would be less likely to dress in blackface.
“The environment has changed a lot since then in that I don’t think many students here would openly do that – at least none of the people that I know,“ he said.
Vice President of the Black Student Union Kendall Free, however, said that there have been overtly racist events in the University’s recent history. She pointed to a 2006 “Halloween in the Hood” themed party hosted by the Sigma Chi fraternity. Many students were outraged over the party, specifically a skeleton hanged by a noose on the porch of the Sigma Chi House and a Facebook page for the party which included derogatory, racist language.
Following the party, BSU members held protests and the University temporarily suspended Sigma Chi. According to Joseph Colón, director of the University’s Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA), the Sigma Chi party led to OMA’s development. He explained how the 2006 events continue to impact students today in an email to The News-Letter.
“The Black Student Union decided to advocate for themselves and the Hopkins community and push for an institutional response,” he wrote. “They approached administration with these demands that included the development of the Multicultural Student Center. It was in response of our Black Student Union’s efforts and allies that prompted the physical space for all and a safe space for students to be supported from marginalized communities. Today this space continues to be used as a gathering space by a number of student groups.”
Free believes that students should make an effort to learn more about certain aspects of the University’s past, even if those events are uncomfortable to grapple with. For Free, understanding that a racist incident led to OMA’s development is especially important.
“Most people aren’t aware of that fact,” she said. “It’s really important for students to know what the history at Hopkins has been.”
Chandrashekhar also believes that dressing in blackface has damaging effects, and that these racist photos are indicative of a broader national history of racism.
“When people dress up in blackface, it’s caricaturing a group of people in a very offensive way,” he said. “Especially when politicians and people who are in power do those kinds of things, it sends the message they don’t really care about that group of people. It shows how deep the roots of racism are in the country in general, that people felt so comfortable to do those sorts of things.”
Connolly believes that the photographs published in the Hullabaloo are indicative of widespread racism in the University. He explained that he is more concerned by the normalization of racism that allowed the photographs to be published than he is by the individuals depicted in the photos.
“The question is not about the individual donning blackface,” he said. “It’s about the folks who decided to publish that picture as an accurate depiction of student life on campus.”