USA Today

Blackface, KKK hoods and mock lynchings: Review of 900 yearbooks finds blatant racism

The old yearbook photos capture the lighthearted moments from college worth remembering – smiling faces, pep rallies and cans of cheap beer.

But tucked in and among those same pages are pictures of students dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes and blackface, nooses and mock lynchings, displays of racism not hidden but memorialized as jokes to laugh about later.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, a stunning number of colleges and university yearbooks published images of blatant racism on campus, the USA TODAY Network found in a review of 900 publications at 120 schools across the country.

At Cornell University in New York, three fraternity members are listed in the 1980 yearbook as “Ku,” “Klux” and “Klan.” For their 1971 yearbook picture, a dozen University of Virginia fraternity members, some armed, wore dark cloaks and hoods while peering up at a lynched mannequin in blackface. In one of the most striking images – from the 1981 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign yearbook – a black man is smiling and holding a beer while posing with three people in full KKK regalia.

Reporters collected more than 200 examples of offensive or racist material at colleges in 25 states, from large public universities in the South, to Ivy League schools in the Northeast, liberal arts boutiques and Division I powerhouses.

The yearbook photos reflect campus communities that tolerated open displays of racism at the parties they attended, parades they marched in and posters they hung – despite the hard-learned lessons of the civil rights movement they grew up with. In almost every picture, people appear happy.

Minority students from that era say the comfort with public behavior that would likely meet swift condemnation today further marginalized minorities on campus. And the choice to publish the images for posterity cut even deeper.

Cassandra Thomas, a black student at the University of Texas in the late 1970s, remembers seeing the photograph of someone wearing a KKK costume draped in a Confederate flag in her yearbook. But she felt she had no recourse on a campus where an almost all-white student body and administration decided what was acceptable and what wasn’t.

“It was about keeping your head down,” said Thomas, 60. “We were trying to get our degree and get out with the least amount of trouble.”

The volume of shocking imagery found in the examination, which was not comprehensive, suggests that there are likely more yearbooks that recorded racism on campuses nationwide – and countless more acts never captured on camera or submitted for publication.

Click here for the rest of the USA Today story.

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