The racist images that roiled Virginia’s political landscape this week have forced some self-reflection within the walls of Maryland’s colleges and universities, with the president of the state’s flagship school acknowledging that such images are sprinkled throughout the pages of the Terrapin yearbooks from the 1960s and '70s.
These images of blackface, nooses and KKK robes shouldn’t come as a surprise, historians and sociologists say.
“Why do we keep acting shocked at the level of racism that is embedded in our cultural fabric?” said Rashawn Ray, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. “Part of the racial reckoning is an admission that, unfortunately, racism is a pillar that holds America up.”
Several university professors who have studied blackface and race believe the re-emergence of the photographs in yearbooks provides an opportunity for universities to confront their pasts and create new traditions that help build an integrated society. They don’t support removing the images or the yearbooks, saying they are part of the historical record.
Pages from the University of Maryland yearbooks are examples of the racial prejudice evident in some aspects of college life. A fraternity page in the 1970 Terrapin yearbook shows members imitating a lynching. More than a dozen men are posing next to a man in a noose, his head down, with a rifle pointed at him. Yearbook pages for another fraternity from multiple years in the 1960s include references to its annual minstrel show, along with photos of men in blackface.
And a photo in the 1965 yearbook shows a man covered in black paint, cheering during a football celebration.
The Johns Hopkins University also began to unearth racist photos in an initial review of a portion of its archives. Among them was a photo of a student in blackface in 1981 and a photo of people in robes and hoods in 1961.
The re-examination of the past comes during a week when several Virginia politicians have faced intense pressure to resign after acknowledging that they either had worn blackface or participated in behavior that condoned racism. Gov. Ralph Northam is under pressure to resign after a racist photo on his medical school yearbook page came to light.
The history of blackface goes back to the 19th century, but it continued to be seen in yearbooks, particularly in Southern universities and colleges, into the 1980s, according to Anthony James, division chair for humanities and fine arts at Coastal Carolina Community College, who researched fraternity yearbook pictures from 1945 through 1980 at higher education institutions in the north and south.
He found that before 1964, the racist photographs in yearbooks were taken at public events, and after that date they were more often taken during private gatherings.
For decades in the early 1900s, Kappa Alpha’s annual Cotton Pickers Minstrel shows were described as one of the highlights of University of Maryland campus life and tradition, according to the university archivist, Lae'l Hughes-Watkins.
Such images are designed to remind black people that this is the role you are intended to play, said Jared Ball, Morgan State University research professor of communication studies in the Institute of Urban Research.
At times of political upheaval, white Americans tried to belittle African-Americans “to comfort ourselves that this is where black people should belong,” Ball said.
James said he believes the photographs are more disturbing than today’s racist Facebook and Twitter posts. These photographs, he said, were taken, then considered and laid out on the yearbook pages. The action of putting together the books took time, which is so unlike how people slap up a photo on social media, he said.
Ray called for universities to go back into their archives and do a “purge.” That doesn’t necessarily mean removing the historical record, he said, but rather acknowledging the past and making a plan for how to move forward.
Andre Perry, a Brookings Institution fellow and University of Maryland alumnus, believes it is time for a reckoning on university campuses but also for reconciliation.
It is not just politicians who partied in blackface, but likely administrators and college presidents as well, he said. While voters should make the decision about politicians, he believes it is time for universities to have a “community conversation.”
Universities have been removing statutes and changing the names of buildings, but taking away these racist symbols is not enough, he said.
“We need programs that are very intentional about saying we need new traditions that can disrupt the vestiges of discrimination,” Perry said.
He pointed to the actions taken by universities like Georgetown, which is offering formal apologies to the descendants of slaves who were owned and sold to support the Washington school when it was struggling financially.
“It is literally time to take off the mask,” Perry said.
If universities don’t come to terms with their pasts, they should be held accountable, he added.
“My perspective is there must be space for forgiveness; however, there must be a time for people to come clean. There is an opening, and people must make room for people to tell the truth,” he said. “If that time passes, then they should be held accountable.”
College Park President Wallace Loh said in a tweet Thursday: “The images of blackface found in past UMD yearbooks are profoundly hurtful and distressing. Traditions like this reflect a history of racial prejudice and do not convey what we seek to embody today.”
In a statement Johns Hopkins officials said the racist 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.”
Johns Hopkins said it has undertaken initiatives in recent years.
“We wrestle with a complex racial legacy. Our institutions were founded by an early abolitionist whose philanthropic values reflected a belief in access for all,” President Ronald J Daniels said in a statement. “We have not always lived up to that ideal.”
Salisbury University said its yearbooks could be viewed online. Loyola University Maryland and Towson University said they would not be reviewing past yearbooks.
Racist acts on the College Park campus aren’t confined to yellowed yearbook pages. Two years ago, a noose was found in the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity house. That same year, white nationalist posters were glued up around campus and swastika graffiti was scrawled on bathroom stalls.
Concerns about hate on campus increased after Bowie State student Richard Collins III was fatally stabbed by a white man while visiting College Park in May 2017.
“Part of why this keeps happening is because a lot of people tend to think racism is a thing of the past,” Ray said. “Racism is very much alive and well.”
Universities, Ray believes, should go through their own archives and “uncover these acts that highlight a racial legacy.”
A university’s yearbook is more than a time capsule for the students who attended, Hughes Watkins said, it is a monument to the era, and the beliefs, traditions and ideals that defined it.
“We cannot run away from our past because it is always present and is there for posterity,” she wrote. “What will our records say five, ten, or twenty years from today. We are writing that story now, and it's up to all of us to decide what that narrative will reflect.”