“Regardless of the year and time, the intent, or the context, these materials are hurtful and disturbing, and they do not embody the values of our community,” Lawrence said Tuesday in a message to the university. “In an effort to limit the damage and pain those depictions might cause in our community, I have decided that for the time being, we will not exhibit the entire collection of The Spinster digitally.”
Hard copies of yearbooks will remain available on the Roanoke campus of the private liberal arts school, but each edition will carry a message “acknowledging these racist portrayals of African Americans,” Lawrence said.
University librarians and members of a group working to address the legacies of slavery and racial inequality raised strong objections in a joint statement.
“While we support President Lawrence’s goals of sharing educational information about the history and practice of blackface, learning from this history, and evolving as an institution and society, we cannot and do not support any erasure of institutional history, even if only temporarily,” the statement read.
Deborah Caldwell-Stone, interim director of the American Library Association’s intellectual freedom office, said restricting access prevents scholars and the public from learning from the yearbooks.
“Archival materials, records, they represent a record of our history, and when you remove materials, you censor them,” she said. “Erasing history solves no problems and simply hides the past from us, so that we can’t learn from it . . . so that we can’t remedy any harms from the past.”
People who handle culturally sensitive material should treat the items with respect and consult communities that are affected, Caldwell-Stone said. Rather than temporarily remove the yearbooks from the digital archives, she said the university should keep them online with “appropriate accompanied language.”
The presence of materials in an archive, she said, doesn’t necessarily mean an institution endorses or approves the content, she added.
“They’ve created a barrier of access that is problematic,” she said.
The Society of American Archivists urged the university to restore online access to all of the yearbooks. In a statement, the group pointed to its ethics code, which states archivists must not “willfully alter, manipulate, or destroy data or records to conceal facts or distort evidence.”
“Removing offensive material that was produced and distributed by the University is, de facto, an alteration of the archival record,” the statement said.
University spokesman Jeffrey M. Hodges said Hollins is not trying to hide history of racism.
“We believe it is not enough to simply state that specific images or other material are racist,” he said. “Helping to increase understanding of why blackface and other practices are racist must go hand-in-hand with acknowledging racism itself.”
Colleges and universities have reexamined their yearbooks in the two months since a racist photo that appeared in the 1984 medical yearbook page of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) stoked widespread calls for his resignation. The governor instead vowed to remain in office and to devote himself to racial reconciliation.
Decades-old photographs of students in blackface and other racist images have resurfaced in yearbook pages in Virginia and across the country. A review of the Hollins yearbooks unearthed racially insensitive cartoons and images of former students in blackface, Lawrence said.
Lawrence acknowledged criticism from the community, noting that some may find the decision excessive, and described efforts by the university to address and discuss history, race and diversity.
“Small acts of injustice engender greater acts of injustice, just as small acts of compassion are the seeds of great ones,” Lawrence said. “With that spirit in mind, I ask for your understanding and your support.”
The Spinster stopped publishing in 2013, according to the university.