After hearing about the recent discovery of racist photos on Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page, student journalists at the University of Virginia started combing through their school’s old yearbooks.
What they found was horrifying.
A 1971 class member page for the Chi Psi fraternity depicts a mob of black-hooded students carrying rifles, all their gazes fixed upon a lone, black-faced mannequin swinging from a tree.
There were other examples of racist images, mainly blackface, throughout U.Va. yearbooks from the 60s, 70s and 80s, said student journalist Abby Clukey, who is the managing editor of The Cavalier Daily. But U.Va. isn’t the only school to find racist images — like blackface and KKK costumes — in their past.
Students and faculty across other campuses in the state have discovered similar pictures, and a recent poll from The Washington Post and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University found that 11 percent of Virginians have either worn blackface or know someone who has.
Blackface was a common pastime in 19th-century minstrel shows. Non-black performers would blacken their skin with burnt cork or dye to portray a caricature of a black person. The practice perpetuated a lasting, racist narrative that painted black people as inferior and contributed to their continued mistreatment.
In investigating past yearbooks, U.Va. students are reckoning with the racist history not only of their state, but also of their campus. Founded by Thomas Jefferson, who owned hundreds of slaves, U.Va. was built on slave labor. Starting in 1830, the university used enslaved people from the surrounding area to work on campus.
On that same campus, the Charlottesville white supremacist rally turned deadly in 2017. On that same campus, two fraternities were suspended in 2002 after a party where students showed up in blackface.
It turns out even the very name of U.Va.’s yearbook, Corks and Curls, has been identified as minstrel slang for the burned cork used to blacken faces and the curly Afro wigs used in blackface costumes.
“It really just goes to show that we need to be addressing our history and our really complicated past,” Clukey told NPR’s Michel Martin. “That’s also the sentiment among people I interviewed — we have to be acknowledging the harm that the university has done to the community.”
The yearbook was first published in 1888, but the name hasn’t been changed since. Soon after the yearbook launched, Clukey said that there was a contest to “rationalize” the name of the yearbook.
The winning submission suggested “corks” were unprepared freshmen, bottled up and too frightened to speak in class, while “curls” referred to students who did so well that they were patted on the head and “curleth his tail for delight.”
The yearbook folded in 2008 due to inadequate finances, since not enough students were buying it, but around two years ago U.Va.’s alumni association helped revive Corks and Curls through fundraising. This year’s yearbook committee is still planning to publish a 2019 issue, according to Clukey, but have had conversations about changing the name.
After finding the photo of the staged lynching, The Cavalier Daily posted it on Twitter, where it garnered a lot of disgusted reactions. Clukey has been interviewing students about their reactions and found that the racist photos have had lasting hurt. One student of color she interviewed had just bought his graduation gown.
“In that picture that we posted, it looked like they’re wearing graduation gowns or something with hoods,” Clukey said. “So that reminded him of what he was about to be doing — graduating from this school that is deeply rooted in racism.”