The turmoil engulfing Virginia politics is exposing a vein of racism that ran through the state’s flagship university from its earliest days. And it is casting a spotlight on the racist ideas and traditions documented in its yearbook, with even the name of that annual volume possibly having racist connotations, a historian has suggested, leading to calls for a new yearbook title.
At the University of Virginia, an investigation into the role of race on campus had unearthed scores of white-supremacist images and commentary in the school’s yearbook, “Corks and Curls,” even before the political news broke. It’s a theme evident in university history, according to a scholar who has been leading a group exploring the role of enslaved people at U-Va. and who is also delving into the years of racial segregation in hopes of presenting a more complete and honest historical account of the school.
The political crisis was sparked by the revelation of a photo on the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook page of Gov. Ralph Northam (D) showing someone in blackface and someone in a Ku Klux Klan outfit. That was followed by an admission by Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (D) that he wore blackface as part of a costume in 1980 while he was a student at U-Va.
U-Va. is not alone. The political revelations prompted schools nationwide to scan their own yearbooks. Many found images of students in blackface or other offensive elements.
University of North Carolina officials last week condemned a 1979 yearbook photo of a simulated lynching of a person wearing blackface by two people wearing KKK robes. On Monday evening, American University officials emailed the campus to say that school officials had found 15 images of concern after reviewing the school’s yearbooks. “The racism and ignorance reflected in these images is abhorrent,” wrote AU Provost Daniel J. Myers and Fanta Aw, vice president of campus life. “We regret the pain they have caused.”
But at U-Va., according to Kirt von Daacke, a professor of history and assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, more white-supremacist images and text appear in old yearbooks than he has seen at other universities in the state. For a few years early in the 20th century, some volumes contained as many as 30 to 35 examples, he said.
“There’s definitely something unusual, at least compared to the schools I looked at, in the amount of this material in the U-Va. yearbook,” said von Daacke, who is helping lead the intensive exploration of the university during the years of segregation.
Rhae Lynn Barnes, an assistant professor of history at Princeton University, wrote in The Washington Post recently that U-Va.'s yearbook got its name from blackface traditions, referencing “minstrel slang for the burned cork used to blacken faces and the curly Afro wigs that were signature costume pieces.”
The first edition of the yearbook provides a different explanation for the name. Editors note that the name, “this cabalistic phrase,” must be “almost meaningless to an outsider.” The editors then present an essay explaining the name, written by a fictitious student, von Daacke said. “Cork” was used to evoke “the real agony of the unprepared student,” who, when called on in class, “sitteth and openeth not his mouth, even as a bottle that is corked up.”
“Curls” was attributed to a legend about an ambitious student who, when praised by a visiting George Washington, seemed “as pleased as a dog when he is patted on his head” and curls his tail in delight.
Von Daacke said he hasn’t found evidence that the words have an origin linked to minstrelsy. Starting in the 1860s, U-Va. publications, letters and diaries contain references to corking and curling as academic slang.
But for a number of reasons, he thinks people at the time may have read the title as containing a double entendre, a reference to blackface. The editor credited with coming up with the name sang in the school’s glee club, which was photographed performing in blackface.
Barnes, the Princeton assistant professor, did not respond to a request for comment this week.
When the Civil War began, the university was already an incubator of pro-slavery, white-supremacist thought, von Daacke said. In 1865, the campus was populated by Confederate veterans. In 1888, when the yearbook was first published, the Jim Crow system was being built and enforced. Early in the 20th century, two KKK cells formed in Charlottesville, whites-only parks with Confederate monuments were created, and the yearbooks contain repeated references, including cartoons, poems and stories, that denigrate black people.
Over the years those images diminish, von Daacke said, but do not disappear. There’s a simulated-lynching photo in 1959 after a student protest, and an image from 1971 evokes a lynching. In more recent years, yearbooks have carried pictures of students at parties with their faces painted black. Old South parties featuring racist tropes continued into the 1990s for some social groups, von Daacke said. People painted their faces black or brown at a party co-hosted by two fraternities in 2002.
The yearbook stopped publishing in 2008 amid diminishing interest from students who were less enamored of buying bound volumes as social media kept them connected for free. But in 2014, U-Va. students resurrected the tradition, helped by donations from graduates.
Nik Popli, a second-year student who is news editor at the Cavalier Daily student newspaper, said he was surprised to learn that U-Va. had a yearbook. But after the political news broke, he and other members of the paper’s staff found old volumes of “Corks and Curls” and paged through, and have written about the issue.
Having the images resurface and talking about the university’s racist past is particularly important for U-Va., Popli said, where white supremacists marched with torches less than two years ago. He thinks most students will feel passionately that the yearbook’s name should be changed.
U-Va.'s president, James E. Ryan, addressed the issue in a message last week highlighting the importance of the research the university is doing to give a more complete and honest account of its history.
Ansley Gould, a third-year student who is the editor in chief of the yearbook, wrote in an email that the images printed in earlier editions are shocking. “We want to actively engage with the work the University has been doing on reviewing UVA publications throughout our history, and work with them on how we move forward,” she wrote.
“A name change is definitely a consideration for us,” she wrote.