Four years before Mark R. Herring and his friends “put on wigs and brown makeup” to dress as black rappers for a party at the University of Virginia in 1980, the university’s president, Frank L. Hereford Jr., resigned his membership in a local country club that excluded black members and guests.
Hereford sought to steer U-Va. cautiously through its transformation from a venerable institution of the Old South to a modern, diverse, international university. He found himself caught between traditionalists who liked things the way they were and reformers who thought he was slow to act. U-Va. students, led by the 1973-74 student council president, had for years been pressuring members of the faculty and administration to quit the club over its admission policy. The vocal student council president was Larry J. Sabato, now the university’s renowned political scientist. The country club, Farmington, which eventually adopted a nondiscrimination policy, was most recently in the news when Fox News host Tucker Carlson scuffled with an antagonist while dining there last fall. And Herring, who acknowledged his blackface history shortly after that of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) came to light, is, for now, the Democratic attorney general of Virginia.
Was this simply a glimpse of white life in the 1970s and 1980s? Casual racism was easy to find in mainstream university life 40 years ago, and 150 U-Va. faculty members and staffers still belonged to Farmington in 1976. “The odds are high,” Jelani Cobb wrote in the New Yorker regarding the blackface incidents, “that a fifty-nine-year-old white Southerner would have grown up in a climate of ambient racism.” Was this just what people did back then?
The answer is, of course, more complicated. Like today, overt racism was condoned by the few and not the many, and it was called out loudly and persistently in Virginia throughout the 1970s and ’80s, not least by the U-Va. student newspaper, the Cavalier Daily. Students at the time worked hard to challenge racist attitudes and behaviors at the commonwealth’s flagship university, Herring’s alma mater and mine.
I did not know Herring, but in 1979-80, I served as editor in chief of the Cavalier Daily. I recently perused bound volumes of the newspaper to refresh my recollection of how my fellow student journalists and I chronicled these issues. The pages depicted a university that was increasingly diverse, yet still tradition bound. For example, a Cavalier Daily editorial in 1978 titled “Tradition at its worst” recounted the appearance of “a small, garish, grinning plaster figure” of a black jockey “positioned in front of a student leader’s room” on the celebrated university Lawn after a football game. “The figure has graced the Lawn repeatedly on football afternoons throughout this fall,” the editorial noted, “prompting snickers from numerous onlookers.”
One subject covered extensively in the Cavalier Daily offers a snapshot of race relations then at the university. In the winter of 1979, Greek organizations were planning their spring formals. After African American Affairs Dean William M. Harris called attention to the issue, the Cavalier Daily ran an editorial on Feb. 23, 1979, titled “Our Local Disgrace,” flaying the one fraternity and two sororities intending to hold events at Farmington, the segregationist country club. “Members of these University groups are young people: products of an era in which the public eye is less myopic and racial attitudes supposedly are more just,” the newspaper wrote. “Are they significantly different from the generation that preceded them?”
The fraternity responded to the editorial by installing a banner across the front of its house announcing a “Local Disgrace Party,” and some letters to the editor reflected this defiant answer. One, from a student, said: “No southern gentleman who ever spent the summer relaxing at ‘the Club’ could ever deem the Ramada Inn the equivalent of Farmington. And Keswick is the perfect example of a once-great club gone shabby after the admission of blacks.” (A letter answering this one said it “slapped in the face” the entire black community.)
But the two sororities took a more measured approach and canceled their plans for events at Farmington. “It’s unfair to be called racist,” one sorority member told Cavalier Daily columnist Woody Holton, “when we weren’t even aware that it mattered.” Holton, son of a former Republican governor and first lady of Virginia who had famously sent their children to predominantly black schools as champions of integration, reported in a column that March that the sorority members had changed their perspective after talking with black friends and faculty members.
While U-Va. admitted its first black undergraduate student in 1955 (women were not admitted to the college of arts and sciences until 1970), the diversity of the university increased significantly only as its total student population grew in the 1970s and 1980s. For the fall 1979 semester, U-Va. enrolled 686 black students in its undergraduate schools, representing 6.3 percent of total undergraduate enrollment, up from 3.3 percent in 1973 — still a small percentage, considering that the African American population of Virginia was nearly 20 percent.
Hereford called for a universitywide commitment “to increase substantially the enrollment and employment of minorities and to enhance their role in University affairs.” He had resigned from Farmington in 1976 when it refused to drop its whites-only policy, saying then that the club’s decision “is wholly unacceptable to me.”
In 1980, the year of Herring’s acknowledged blackface episode, the Cavalier Daily began a four-part series on “The Black Experience” at the university. In the first article, written by Nancy Cook (now Nancy Barnes, senior vice president of news and editorial director at NPR), college student Bert Johnston, who had attended a predominantly black high school, described the feeling of being “dropped into a sea of white” when he arrived in Charlottesville. Sometimes “white students act like they don’t even see us,” Black Student Alliance Vice Chairman Bridgette Eaton observed. “They turn their backs to us, slam doors in our faces . . . like we’re not even there.” Eaton suggested that the snubs were unintentional. “They really don’t realize what they’re doing.”
Those of us attending college in those days had some reason to believe that we had traveled light-years away from the 1950s, when minstrel shows were still a popular form of entertainment and public schools were still segregated. It is remarkable to think that 1980 was closer to 1950 than we are now to 1980. Today, it is almost universally acknowledged that a white person putting on makeup to mimic a person of color is unacceptable behavior readily perceived to be racist, regardless of whether the intent is to demean and ridicule. But then? Within my social circle at the university, blackface was unthinkable. Most students knew better. Herring himself, in his statement about his decision to wear blackface, said, “It was really a minimization of both people of color, and a minimization of a horrific history I knew well even then.” Some students along fraternity row, however, still enjoyed playing dress-up, and occasionally that meant blackface. Herring’s recent admission bears this out.
The Cavalier Daily reported on progress in race relations, too. In the Jan. 29, 1980, paper, Holton, who is now an award-winning historian, wrote about a white student, David Uskavitch, who had joined the pledge line of Alpha Phi Alpha, a prominent African American fraternity whose members had included W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King Jr. Uskavitch was “the first white [U-Va.] student to join a ‘black’ fraternity,” Holton wrote. “Uskavitch hasn’t yet gotten used to the attention he attracts. ‘But the other guys get a lot of stares, too,’ he says, ‘So I don’t feel like I’m different.’ ” Uskavitch went on to become a neurologist in Nashville, and he and his wife, Louise, also a graduate of U-Va., sent their biracial son, Jacob, to the University of Virginia. Jacob, who graduated in 2017, served as president of the Alpha Phi Alpha chapter there, lived on the Lawn and was chair of the Black Presidents Council. He is now in medical school.
Americans still need to talk honestly with one another about the history of race in the country and what it means for us today. But it’s a conversation that the Cavalier Daily has been facilitating — and covering — for decades. In the series about “The Black Experience,” an African American student anticipated our current debate over “microaggressions.” She observed that prejudice is rarely direct, but “you always know it’s there.” In some ways that’s the opposite of where we are today, a moment when young men carrying tiki torches can descend on the University of Virginia from out of town, proclaiming white supremacy.
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