Posted on February 21, 2019

Blackface, KKK Hoods and Mock Lynchings: Review of 900 Yearbooks Finds Blatant Racism

Bret Murphy, USA Today, February 21, 2019

In one of the most extensive searches of college yearbooks ever, we found blackface and Ku Klux Klan photos like Ralph Northam’s far beyond Virginia.


But tucked in and among those same pages are pictures of students dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes and blackface, nooses and mock lynchings, displays of racism not hidden but memorialized as jokes to laugh about later.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, a stunning number of colleges and university yearbooks published images of blatant racism on campus, the USA TODAY Network found in a review of 900 publications at 120 schools across the country.

At Cornell University in New York, three fraternity members are listed in the 1980 yearbook as “Ku,” “Klux” and “Klan.” For their 1971 yearbook picture, a dozen University of Virginia fraternity members, some armed, wore dark cloaks and hoods while peering up at a lynched mannequin in blackface. In one of the most striking images — from the 1981 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign yearbook — a black man is smiling and holding a beer while posing with three people in full KKK regalia.

Reporters collected more than 200 examples of offensive or racist material at colleges in 25 states, from large public universities in the South, to Ivy League schools in the Northeast, liberal arts boutiques and Division I powerhouses.

The yearbook photos reflect campus communities that tolerated open displays of racism at the parties they attended, parades they marched in and posters they hung – despite the hard-learned lessons of the civil rights movement they grew up with. In almost every picture, people appear happy.


The review also gives new perspective to an array of cases that have emerged since reports showed that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page features a person wearing blackface and another in a KKK hood. The image, uncovered in early February, has endangered Northam’s career and galvanized student newspapers and local outlets around the country to dig up other cases of politicians in racist situations.

No politicians were identified by USA TODAY Network’s review, which focused on the same time period as Northam’s yearbook, in the era after sweeping civil rights reform. Few images had captions to provide names or context and people’s faces were often hidden behind hoods or blackface.


Experts say that even if school officials don’t have direct oversight over the yearbooks, responsibility rests with the entire institution: A campus culture that fostered racist behavior; yearbook staffs that chose to memorialize it; and administrations that failed to condemn the images when they were published for the world to see.


The yearbooks in the USA TODAY Network examination also show students saluting in Nazi uniforms on Halloween or wearing orange paint and a headdress to depict a stereotype of a Native American on game day. There are “slave sale” fundraisers that auctioned off young women, “plantation parties” and a “sharecroppers ball.” One picture shows a swastika banner hung up on what appears to be a dormitory wall.

But the vast majority of the offensive material show racist imagery, such as students in blackface or KKK robes, sometimes just pages away or even alongside images of minority students and university leaders.


Similar scenes are splashed across the yearbooks: There are white people dressed up as Michael Jackson, Tina Turner and Aunt Jemima for skits. A “sleazy pimp” in blackface at a fraternity’s “Pimps and Whores” party. Some students painted their face like 19th-century minstrel shows. Others marched in parades wearing blackface. Groups of friends put on KKK robes for costume parties and Halloween.


As more offensive images surface from yearbooks, Americans are trying to weigh how to reckon past actions with today’s cultural norms, sharpened by more empowered minorities and social consciousness.

Experts said this is an opportunity for colleges not only to address the past, but also to focus on the racial inequalities that are still present on campus, just better hidden and more readily cast as separate from the school.


Hilary O. Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington Bureau, said there is likely a range of intentions behind all of the photographs. The students in blackface dressing up for Halloween as a favorite black celebrity may have been trying to be funny and were just insensitive or oblivious to the harm they caused. The ones in KKK robes, or those who used blackface in a mocking way, might have worse motivations.

“They can argue they were ignorant to it, but it was still racist,” Shelton said. The more meaningful distinction is how those same people respond in retrospect – whether they accept responsibility and apologize or deny having done something wrong.

“That’s the bigger problem,” said Shelton. “Ignorant arrogance, which is a very dangerous thing.”


Some universities, including American, Elon and Wake Forest, released findings from their own internal reviews to identify offensive images in past yearbooks.

On the New York school’s 150th anniversary in 1979, the Rochester Institute of Technology yearbook published a photo of nine students in KKK robes, one holding a noose. The photo is grainy, which makes it difficult to know for certain, but posing with them is either a white student in blackface or a black student.


Though many colleges began prohibiting Confederate flag displays on campus decades ago, Confederate imagery remains a part of the fabric at some schools in the South.

For generations, the Kappa Alpha Order fraternity at schools across the South, including the University of South Carolina and Auburn University, maintained traditions of the “Old South” with parades and parties in Confederate clothing and flags, some the size of a basketball court, all recorded in dozens of yearbooks.

The fraternity has since banned the display of the flags, and in 2010 prohibited members from wearing Confederate uniforms at events. Kappa Alpha Order spokesman Jesse S. Lyons said in a statement that the racist acts documented at fraternity parties “are not appropriate at any time, do not reflect who we are, and would not be tolerated.”

At the University of Texas, prejudice at the school was so acute and institutionalized that some professors lectured about black inferiority in the classrooms, former student Cassandra Thomas recalled.


While southern schools may be the crucible for racist customs, the photos captured by the USA TODAY review show they extend to other parts of the country as well.

In schools across the Midwest and North, campuses often touted as bastions of liberalism and tolerance, yearbooks chronicle some of the same displays.

Until 1969, the University of Vermont celebrated a “Kake Walk” festival that featured white students who dressed in blackface as an homage to minstrel shows. But references to it, including blackface, emerged in the yearbooks in the following decades.


Reporters found five examples of black students appearing in or alongside KKK robes, including the 1981 Illinois photograph from a Halloween party.

“As a black or brown student, you have to navigate those social relationships: Try to fit in or get punished by that same social structure?” said Andre M. Perry at the Brookings Institution. “Many students just grin and bear it. They know deep down this is wrong; they’re making fun of people like me.”