The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Photos of blackface, KKK robes and nooses lurk alongside portraits in old college yearbooks

The Bomb is the yearbook of Virginia Military Institute. (Courtesy VMI)

The 1922 edition of the Campanile yearbook at Rice University featured a group photo of white-hooded members of what appears to be a campus chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1968, the Virginia Military Institute yearbook, known as the Bomb, published racist slurs and images, including a picture of two grinning men in blackface holding a football. And the 1979 yearbook of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill included a photo of a simulated lynching, with two people dressed as KKK members and a person in blackface hanging from a noose.

These are some of the bombshells to surface in old college yearbooks since a photo of people dressed in blackface and a KKK robe was discovered on the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook page of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D). The Feb. 1 revelation of Northam’s page ignited a political crisis, with the governor facing pressure to resign. At first, Northam acknowledged appearing in the photo. Then, he said he wasn’t in it.

Now, college officials, students, faculty, journalists and others are sifting archives across the country to learn what else those musty tomes of yesteryear might tell.

“We’re going to see more of this — these pictures are probably lurking in people’s yearbooks everywhere,” said Kirt von Daacke, a history professor and assistant dean of arts and sciences at the University of Virginia who has been studying yearbooks.

“No one stopped to think about what’s in them — and what story does that tell," von Daacke said. “It’s particularly bleak for Southern institutions.”

Katherine A. Rowe, president of the College of William & Mary, this week ordered an audit of its yearbooks as officials acknowledged they were aware of editions of the Colonial Echo from the first half of the 20th century that contained racist images.

“This review will help inform [a] deeper understanding of William & Mary’s racial history as we work together as a community to ensure this is the kind of respectful and welcoming campus we want and expect,” university spokesman Brian Whitson wrote Thursday in an email.

After blackface images from an old school yearbook circulated on social media, University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh called them “profoundly hurtful and distressing” and said, “Traditions like this reflect a history of racial prejudice and do not convey what we seek to embody today.”

The renewed scrutiny comes as many college yearbooks are dying out, a trend that accelerated during the 2008 financial crisis. “Yearbooks were often one of the first things to go,” said Kelley Lash, director of student media at Rice University and past president of the College Media Association, a group based in New York that represents advisers to student publications.

The University of Richmond said it has not published a digital or print yearbook in at least a decade. But the liberal arts school was shaken this week when it learned that a racist image from a 1980 yearbook was circulating on social media. It showed hooded people posing next to a grinning man with a noose around his neck and a beverage in his hand.

“Images of this sort, and the behavior and attitudes they represent, are appalling and antithetical to the values of the University today,” University of Richmond President Ronald A. Crutcher said in a statement Thursday. “No one should have to experience the pain caused by such vile images, or evidence of such behavior, either at the time the incident occurs or thereafter.”

At Rice, 21-year-old senior Charles Paul said he became curious about yearbooks after Northam and Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) acknowledged wearing blackface. “If it was a widespread thing in Virginia,” Paul said, “it must have been a widespread thing in Texas.” He started tweeting what he found, including images from the 1920s of blackface and the KKK. “I felt like it was important,” he said.

Asked about the pages Paul tweeted, Rice said: “What these old yearbook entries show was shockingly wrong and inappropriate, a reflection of disgraceful behavior that apparently was all too common in past decades but has no place on our campus today.”

At VMI, officials have reviewed their handling of yearbooks since the Northam scandal erupted. A 1981 yearbook picture of Northam, a VMI graduate, noted a nickname for him, “Coonman,” that some perceive as including a racial slur. Northam has said he does not know why people gave him that nickname.

On Thursday, the VMI yearbook came under further scrutiny as the Virginian-Pilot newspaper reported that a 1968 edition of the Bomb included images of people in blackface and racial slurs referencing African Americans and people of Asian descent. Virginia Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City), also a VMI graduate, was an editor who helped produce that year’s edition. He released a statement Thursday disavowing responsibility for the offensive content.

“The use of blackface is abhorrent in our society and I emphatically condemn it,” Norment said in the statement

Stewart D. MacInnis, a VMI spokesman, said the public military college has in recent years tightened its review of the student publication. What is published is the decision of cadets, MacInnis said, but VMI officials read it before publication and advise editors to weed out offensive images and language. MacInnis said VMI is aware that past editions contain offensive material.

“We have a past,” he said. “We are living in the present. We think we’re good citizens of the present. We’re using the past as a guide for us — lessons for the future.”

In North Carolina, a reporter for the Raleigh News & Observer tweeted on Wednesday a picture from a 1979 yearbook showing a simulated lynching. That image and others taken from a page dedicated to the Chi Phi Fraternity quickly went viral and sparked outrage.

Joel Curran, a spokesman for University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said in a statement Wednesday evening: “The photos found in the 1979 student yearbook are abhorrent. We fully and wholly condemn both the photos and the racist behavior they depict. That kind of behavior has no place on our campus now or then.”

Michael Azarian, Chi Phi Fraternity executive director, said in a written statement: “We strongly denounce the behavior and sentiments displayed in these images. Bigotry is not welcome in our Fraternity.”

In Charlottesville, the University of Virginia has been combing through yearbooks for two months, part of an ongoing exploration into its past. Von Daacke co-chairs the U-Va. President’s Commission on the University in the Age of Segregation, which followed a similar commission on slavery at the university. The school has always revered its history, but in recent years it has taken an unflinching look at the more troubling aspects of the legacy of its founder, Thomas Jefferson, and the university’s culture.

Von Daacke said scholars have gone through yearbooks into the 1950s and found them shaped by a culture of white supremacy.

“From the inception of the yearbook, one of the themes running through it is denigration of African Americans — in cartoons, in photographs, in stories, in fiction," he said. He described it as "a running theme” from the 1800s into the 1930s. And it doesn’t disappear entirely after that, he noted.

Von Daacke has found the same themes at other schools in the early 20th century. There’s more of it at U-Va. than he has seen at many other schools, he said. But on Thursday morning, he was looking at yearbooks from some colleges in Boston and found blackface images from the 1910s and 1920s. “It’s part of the national culture,” he said. Blackface performances were part of early cinema, “The Birth of a Nation” film was released in 1915, the Ku Klux Klan was reborn, and Confederate monuments were being erected in Charlottesville and many other places. The offensive imagery is particularly enduring in the South, he said.

Schools should be examining — and coming to terms with — their pasts, Von Daacke said. “The first order of business is the truth-telling. . . . We have to be honest about who we are. Schools often haven’t been."

It’s a sharp reminder that our histories are relevant in today’s climate, said Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. Just as schools should be considering their monuments and building names that may have racist tones or histories, he said, “I would urge every institution to do the work of examining their past publications” to see if there are things that could offend.

When he asked some college administrators Thursday if they had checked their student yearbooks, he said they told him, “We haven’t done it yet — but we should.”

Laura Vozzella in Richmond contributed to this report.