Dozens of racist images emerge in old GW yearbooks amid national controversy

Media Credit: Cherry Tree Archive

GW yearbooks featured at least 14 instances of blackface and three photos of people wearing KKK hoods – the most recent of which was published in 1977.

Updated: Feb. 11, 2019 at 1:17 p.m.

More than a dozen photos featuring people in blackface or Ku Klux Klan hoods appear in dated GW yearbooks.

After a series of three racist images from 1960s yearbooks surfaced last week amid a national conversation about universities’ discriminatory pasts, The Hatchet sifted through more than 100 years of online archives of The Cherry Tree yearbooks. The analysis revealed at least 14 instances of blackface and three photos of people wearing KKK hoods – the most recent of which was published in 1977 – and more than a dozen racist sketches and other instances of offensive outfits or hateful symbolism.

The Hatchet’s analysis excludes the 1919 yearbook, which is missing from online archives. A physical copy was not immediately accessible at Gelman Library.

The original three photos, which students and officials condemned last week, depicted two men in blackface at a talent show in 1964, while two additional pictures showed students appearing to wear KKK hoods at parties and theater shows in 1965 and 1968.

University President Thomas LeBlanc denounced the images Friday and said in an interview that the photos are part of a “national story” that has pushed other universities to also analyze their old publications. He was made aware of the photos Thursday evening and said they are “terribly unfortunate” – but not surprising.

“I am not surprised there is racism in our past, and I am not surprised there is racism in our yearbook as a result,” LeBlanc said.

The most recent racist photo in a Cherry Tree yearbook was featured in a 1977 edition, where a student is pictured in a KKK hood on a Halloween page.

Richard Stalford, an alumnus who served as the editor of the yearbook in 1977, said he does not remember under what context the photo was published, but the picture would not have been acceptable at the time and “might have slipped through.”

“That’s really nice to look at these things with the wisdom of age and the sensitivity that it caused not only then but now,” Stalford said. “I’m sure it was a mistake at the time.”

Older photos depicting blackface or KKK hoods are featured on pages of students at parties, theater productions and talent shows. A photo of a person in blackface appears in a 1944 yearbook on a page that, in part, reads: “Recalling events which will bring you pleasant memories of this year.”

The Hatchet also found several racist sketches primarily published between 1910 and 1930. A sketch in a 1914 yearbook depicted two individuals wearing KKK hoods sitting outside a building labeled “Greeks.”

The Hatchet also found at least 20 instances in which students were pictured dressing up in traditionally Native American and Asian dress and makeup during celebrations and performances.

The Cherry Tree released a statement Friday condemning the racist photos from the 1960s, saying they “run directly counter to our values.” Cherry Tree Editor in Chief Evelyn White declined to comment further.

The findings follow resurfaced images allegedly featuring Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam in a 1984 medical school yearbook depicting a man in blackface and another in a KKK hood. Other Virginia politicians have since admitted to wearing blackface or editing yearbooks that published racist images, multiple news outlets have reported.

Photos depicting blackface, staged lynchings and illustrations of slaves have also resurfaced in old yearbooks at other colleges, including the universities of Virginia and Maryland.

Provost Forrest Maltzman said in an interview Friday that the photos found in GW yearbooks are “disgusting,” and he hopes the community can learn from past mistakes.

“One of the things people should never do is bury their history,” he said.

At least nine racist images in past Cherry Tree yearbooks appeared on pages featuring sororities and fraternities.

The earliest photo from a Greek life page is a 1946 photo of members of Chi Omega acting out a sketch at an annual “goat show,” where one woman is pictured in blackface.

“Though this photo is from 70 years ago, it is still inexcusable,” Kerri Corcoran, the president of Chi Omega and a Hatchet staff writer, said in an email. “Chi Omega is proud to represent women of diverse racial, religious and ethnic backgrounds.”

A 1949 picture of Kappa Alpha Theta women performing a skit at the “goat show” includes two students with their faces painted black. Liz Rinck, the director of communications for Kappa Alpha Theta, said inclusion and diversity are “important topics of conversation in the world of higher education, including in Kappa Alpha Theta.”

Jesse Lyons, the assistant executive director for advancement for Kappa Alpha, said a 1949 photo of a man in blackface at the “Tacky Ball” is “not appropriate at any time, does not reflect who we are and would not be tolerated.”

A photo on Sigma Nu’s 1950 yearbook page shows two students re-enacting a slave trade with the caption, “One dime … the twentieth of a dollar.”

“Sigma Nu is disappointed by the repugnant behavior displayed by past members,” Aaditya Divekar, the chapter’s president, said in an email. “Racism and hate have no place in our community and stand against the values the current chapter holds.”

A photo on Pi Beta Phi’s 1957 yearbook page depicts members acting out “real Mis’ippi gamblin’,” in which two women appear in blackface.

“I cannot speak to the thoughts of members of the chapter in 1957, but I can tell you that today’s chapter members are disgusted by what this image portrays,” Erica Viscovich, the president of Pi Beta Phi, said in an email.

A Delta Tau Delta page from 1958 shows fraternity members entering an event in blackface.

“We are disgusted to see that former members of the GW chapter participated and condoned such behavior,” Steven Stanton, the director of academic affairs for Delta Tau Delta, said in an email. “Such behavior is not and will not be tolerated in this chapter.”

A Phi Sigma Sigma page in 1963 includes a group photo in which one individual is wearing blackface with the caption “You’all.” Alison Janega, the president of Phi Sigma Sigma, said members are aware of the photo and “do not believe it is appropriate regardless of the year.”

“As an organization, we are encouraged by the measurable progress we have made since 1963,” Janega said in an email. “Part of ensuring that we don’t make the same mistakes in the future is the opportunity to have an open and honest dialogue to better understand how past actions could be hurtful and disrespectful to fellow community members, then and now.”

A 1965 photo showing a student dancing in KKK dress – one of the three photos that surfaced last week – was featured on a page for Tau Kappa Epsilon. Gregory Roskopf, the chief risk officer of the national chapter of Tau Kappa Epsilon, said the fraternity does not condone the racist actions of any TKE member.

“Tau Kappa Epsilon proudly represents a wide range of individuals by every measure of race, creed, beliefs or orientation,” Roskopf said in an email.

Race and social policy experts said universities should acknowledge the photos and promote discussions about the impact of the schools’ racist histories.

Lawrence Ross, the author of “Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses,” said universities often “rationalize” old racist photos by saying they were taken in a different time period. He said that sentiment “dismisses” the concerns of minority students and added that actions like hiring diversity chairs are a “small step” to help dissect an organization’s culture.

The University hired its first diversity and inclusion education director last fall after members of the sorority Alpha Phi were pictured in a racist Snapchat post last year.

“You have to deconstruct it,” Ross said. “You can’t paper it over or do superficial things in order to say that you’re solving the problem – then what you’re just doing is just saying that it’s just a PR problem and nothing else.”

Mitchell Chang, a professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles, said “deep segregation” was more common in Greek life because the organizations were the “most exclusive clubs” and were “highly” segregated both racially and economically.

“It’s not enough to just say ‘This isn’t who we are, this is our past,’” Chang said. “It’s recognizing it and then doing something to correct it, and that is the responsibility primarily of the institutional leadership.”

Elizabeth Rule, the assistant director of GW’s AT&T Center for Indigenous Politics and Policy, said the emergence of images at GW demonstrates how universities sometimes “uphold racist, sexist forms of violence.” She said the University needs to acknowledge the images and the “moments of violence and racism” that occurred in the past.

“It’s important to recognize how racism has taken on a different language and manifests itself in different ways but with still equally destructive, harmful and hurtful consequences to the students,” she said.

Matt Cullen, Vita Fellig, Jared Gans, Cayla Harris, Kelly Hooper, Parth Kotak, Nia Lartey, Lizzie Mintz, Leah Potter, Liz Provencher, Sarah Roach and Zach Schonfeld contributed reporting.

Editor’s note:
This post was updated to include comment from respresentatives of Delta Tau Delta and Sigma Nu.

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