A USA Today newspaper box in Charlotte in 2009. The news organization's reporters recently searched for racist photos in old yearbooks. (Chuck Burton/AP)

Earlier this month, dozens of reporters affiliated with USA Today started reading through hundreds of old yearbooks. A national reckoning had begun over blackface and other racist photos after an offensive yearbook page emerged from Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D). The paper wanted to discover how widespread the problem was and whether other public figures had similar images in their past.

The answer hit very close to home.

Among the more than 200 offensive photos they unearthed around the country was an image of two white students in black makeup in the 1989 Arizona State University yearbook. A reporter from the Arizona Republic couldn’t track down those students, but she didn’t have to go far to find the editor who had run the photo.

The ASU yearbook’s editor in chief — and the designer of the page with the blackface photo — was USA Today’s own editor in chief, Nicole Carroll.

Carroll has now apologized, becoming the latest in high-profile Americans forced to reconcile their participation in a deeply offensive tradition that has abruptly returned to the spotlight.

“I am sorry for the hurt I caused back then and the hurt it will cause today,” Carroll wrote in a column published Wednesday. “Clearly the 21-year-old me who oversaw the book and that page didn’t understand how offensive the photo was. I wish I had. Today’s 51-year-old me of course understands and is crushed by this mistake."

USA Today’s effort, which resulted in an in-depth investigation also published Wednesday, is the most ambitious attempt yet at delving into the long-running embrace of blackface at American universities.

The racist trope reentered the national conversation earlier this month thanks to Northam’s page in a 1984 medical school yearbook, which showed a white man in blackface next to another person in a KKK costume. After first saying he was in the photo, Northam backtracked — though he did admit to wearing blackface another time as part of a Michael Jackson costume. He has steadfastly rejected calls to resign.

Soon after those revelations, USA Today tapped into its nationwide network, assigning 78 reporters to flip through more than 900 yearbooks from the 1970s and 1980s.

“We focused on the 1970s and ’80s because the era followed the Civil Rights movement. College students at that time were coming of age as equal rights advocates pushed for a reckoning on race and the need to raise a greater societal consciousness,” the paper wrote.

The results, drawing on yearbooks from 120 colleges in 25 states, were unambiguous: Hundreds of photos showed white students in blackface, donning KKK robes and otherwise denigrating African Americans. While photos were also found mocking Native Americans and featuring Nazi symbols, the paper found “the vast majority of the offensive material show racist imagery.”

One of the most disturbing photos, USA Today reported, came from the 1971 University of Virginia yearbook, which featured around a dozen fraternity members clutching rifles and clad in dark hoods, leering up at a mannequin in blackface hanging from a tree limb.

“Many of these photos are extremely offensive and painful to view,” James E. Ryan, president of U-Va., told USA Today. “But while the photos themselves are shocking, their existence is not.”

USA Today did not find any politicians portrayed in those hundreds of racist photos, though most ran without captions, making the participants impossible to identify. In the end, the paper’s own editor in chief was the most prominent leader turned up by the review.

The image in the 1989 ASU yearbook, which the Arizona Republic and USA Today declined to reprint, reportedly depicts two white students in black makeup dressed up as boxer Mike Tyson and actress Robin Givens. In her column, Carroll writes that she had “no memory of that photo.”

Carroll, who became editor of the Republic in 2015 before taking the top job at USA Today in March 2018, apologized and pledged to learn from the revelation.

“I want to apologize publicly. As journalists, we must hold ourselves accountable as we do others, and it is important to call myself out for this poor judgment,” Carroll wrote, while noting her work to establish a diversity committee at USA Today. “Also, I want to continue to grow from this.”

Independent of USA Today’s efforts, college administrations and student newspapers are hunting through their own back copies of yearbooks to confront their racist pasts. Carroll seems unlikely to be the last prominent leader who has to answer for offensive photos.

Just one day before USA Today’s investigation dropped, a member of the board of trustees at Gettysburg College resigned after student journalists at the Pennsylvania school found a 1980 yearbook photo of him wearing a Nazi uniform.

More from Morning Mix:

‘I meant it with total sincerity’: Tucker Carlson explains viral profanity-laced clash with Dutch historian

‘Jerk punks’ torched a statue of General Lee. It honors a WWII veteran, not the Confederate leader.

A suspect in New Hampshire’s oldest cold case killed himself. Now police say it’s evidence he’s guilty.