1970s and 1980s Yearbooks Featured Blatant Racism—And Not Just in the South
Ku Klux Klan jokes, fake lynchings, and the like were routinely depicted even at places like Cornell.
Sparked by the Ralph Northam controversy, USA Today‘s Brett Murphy conducted a wide-ranging survey of yearbooks and discovered that racism abounded–and not just in the Old South. Shocking, I know.
“Blackface, KKK hoods and mock lynchings: Review of 900 yearbooks finds blatant racism”
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.
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.
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.
The review also gives new perspective to an array of cases that have emerged since reports showed that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page features a person wearing blackface and another in a KKK hood. The image, uncovered in early February, has endangered Northam’s career and galvanized student newspapers and local outlets around the country to dig up other cases of politicians in racist situations.
No politicians were identified by USA TODAY Network’s review, which focused on the same time period as Northam’s yearbook, in the era after sweeping civil rights reform. Few images had captions to provide names or context and people’s faces were often hidden behind hoods or blackface.
In one yearbook, from Arizona State University, reporters discovered that USA TODAY Editor Nicole Carroll had designed a page that included a photo of two people, at a fraternity’s Halloween party, in black makeup as actress Robin Givens and boxer Mike Tyson. Carroll, who was editor of the yearbook in 1989 when the photo ran, expressed regret after learning of the photo.
“I was shocked when a colleague told me of my role in publishing a racist and hurtful photo in my college yearbook,” Carroll said in a statement. “I am truly sorry for the harm my ignorance caused then, and the hurt it will cause now, 30 years later.”
Experts say that even if school officials don’t have direct oversight over the yearbooks, responsibility rests with the entire institution: A campus culture that fostered racist behavior; yearbook staffs that chose to memorialize it; and administrations that failed to condemn the images when they were published for the world to see.
Andre M. Perry, a David M. Rubenstein Fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, has studied his alma mater’s yearbooks at the University of Maryland. He said racism in higher education has a way of involving everyone on campus, so he wasn’t surprised to see it documented so regularly.
“The way to fit in, sadly, is to make fun of black people,” Perry said. “It’s a unifying act. It’s sad but racism pulls people, particularly white people, together.”
The yearbooks in the USA TODAY Network examination also show students saluting in Nazi uniforms on Halloween or wearing orange paint and a headdress to depict a stereotype of a Native American on game day. There are “slave sale” fundraisers that auctioned off young women, “plantation parties” and a “sharecroppers ball.” One picture shows a swastika banner hung up on what appears to be a dormitory wall.
But the vast majority of the offensive material show racist imagery, such as students in blackface or KKK robes, sometimes just pages away or even alongside images of minority students and university leaders.
As noted in several posts after the Northam controversy broke, I’m simply not that surprised. Things that are seen as clearly racist now—and even some things that were at least controversial at the time—were routinely taking place even in the late 1980s. Granting that I was going to school in the Deep South, where this sort of thing was conducted openly later than it may have been elsewhere, it certainly doesn’t shock me that it was happening in elite schools in other parts of the country in the 1970s and early 1980s.
While it doesn’t seem like it to those of us who are old enough to remember them, the 1970s and 1980s were a long time ago. 1989 is as far in the past now as 1959 was then—and that period was already seen as the Olden Days, the subject of romantic movie and television portrayals and fond retrospectives when I was a kid.
One can easily imagine people of the not-that-distant future going back through our own cultural history and judging us harshly based on their evolved understanding.
As I believe I’ve noted before, I’m often surprised when I go back to the entertainment of my youth at the casual misogyny of the song lyrics and movies. (And it’s even worse going back to what was popular slightly before, including such things as “The Honeymooners” or the early “James Bond” flicks.)
Partly because we brought different television viewing habits into the relationship and partly because we don’t start watching until we’ve gotten the kids to bed and don’t have the mental energy to dive into serial programming by then, my fiance and I have been watching a lot of stand-up comedians on Netflix of late. More than me, she’s often shocked at the casual racism and misogyny of many of the routines—mostly coming from middle-aged black comics—even though they’re almost all from the last five-six years.
Also peculiar to that demographic—and, again, these are men roughly my age—is a penchant for jokes about beating children with extension cords and other weapons. That’s cringe-worthy to me now, even if it has the live audience laughing hysterically.
Recently, the comedian Kevin Hart was forced to step down as host of the Academy Awards after some gay slurs were found in some old tweets. At 39, Hart is considerably younger than me. He’s been in the spotlight for nearly two decades with a relatively “clean” act. One would think he would have known better than to use such language in a public forum, let alone in written form. But anti-gay jokes are routine among black and Hispanic comics. The anti-trans bits are flat-out toxic. But, rather clearly, they’re not considered taboo within some subcultures.
Our broader attitudes toward the LGBTQ community are rapidly evolving. Much more quickly, in fact, than our attitudes toward African Americans. It won’t take 35 years, as it did in Northam’s case, for this to come back and haunt many of these comics. Perhaps, like Northam, they will have erased that part of their past from their self-identity. But we should also cut them some slack, judging them based on the social norms of their community and not just the most evolved attitudes of elite society.
TL/DR: Back in the 70s and 80s we held various kinds of animus toward people who “are not like us” and we still do.
(And our great-grandchildren are going to find the same thing investigating artifacts from 20 years from now, too.)
Nice to see someone go out and commit journalism, even on this small scale. I suspect that if we kept searching, and added in high school yearbooks, we would find tons more.
“30 years ago” is basically 1990. 1970 was 50 years ago. It really was a different time.
@Just nutha ignint cracker:
Yeah, don’t think so… These things are reminders of how far we’ve come, not reminders of how far we have to go.
As the second half of my post suggests, I think it’s both. We’ve clearly come a long, long way on race, even if we have further to go. But there are all manner of attitudes that are openly expressed now in public fora that will be considered equally embarrassing 10-20-30-50 years from now.
…added in high school yearbooks,..
I have my 1963 year book from East Park Jr. High School, Danville, Illinois and my 1966 year book from Homewood-Flossmoor High School (Illinois).
While H-F had no Black students, faculty or staff at the time, East Park was an integrated school.
Neither year book has any images that disrespect anyone of any race, religion or ethnicity.
I caught a bit of Eddie Murphy’s “Raw” the other night, and it still makes me laugh, but oh my.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised; even when watching it with my then-girlfriend back in 1990, I cringed openly at the “wife’s job” section of the act. I suspect Eddie gets a pass for it because he’s no longer in the standup scene, and that if he were somehow willing to return, he would catch some hell for it.
It doesn’t feel right that a guy should essentially be forced to remain retired if he’s done some inappropriate work in the past, but I suppose that’s the world we live in.
I remember quite a bit of homophobia in that and other Murphy routines in the ’80s. I think he apologized for it later.
@James Pearce: Everybody gotta have a gig and a place to row it. I hope you’re right but remain skeptical.
Also, I hope your comment is being hopeful and not simply contrarian, but I can’t control the degree to which you’re willing to engage in self-delusion to maintain your delusions about yourself.
I’m on board with Mister B. here. Nothing like this exists in any of my high school yearbooks (my mother kept them, god knows why). And yes, by the way, James, I went to high school in the 70’s. It was not that much of a different age.
What I find more repugnant than the actual asshattery of the students is the casual “oh well what ya gonna do – teenagers, amirite?” attitude of the present day. The 70’s were ten years after the civil rights battle, the assassination of MLK and murders of civil rights workers. Dressing up as a Klansman would have shocked us teenagers had it been suggested at the time. And we were not New Age Sensitive Guys in those days either. But there were lines and we knew them when we saw them.
We are a nation of 329 million people. Surely there are more than enough adults walking around today who saw things the same way my peers and I did all those years ago. I’m sure that excluding jagoffs with appalling judgement from positions of high responsibility won’t leave us with a critical shortage of qualified decent people.
@Mister Bluster: Homewood-Flossmore! My high school, Marist, played yours! We had one black student while I attended.
There’s also something else that should be factored in here. Those of us over fifty are becoming the “olds”. And the young are looking for reasons why we are no longer relevant, just as we did 30 years ago. I suspect a subconscious part of this harsh judgement is that a fair amount of “time for these jokers to get offstage” is in the mix.
For me, the big story here continues to be how much of this was tied to the Fraternity system.
As a Gen Xer, I’m not sure I ever actually started being relevant. =)
The boomers have a death grip on the levers of power, and bthe millenials are far more numerous than gen xers. By the time the boomers finally lose control, millenials will be old enough to take it for themselves without Gen Xers having ever been in charge.
We’re a ghost generation.
Boomers had better make sure they’ve got enough savings to cover retirement and healthcare because I’m thinking that relying on the mercy of post-Boomers to provide funding for us might be – optimistic. Karma is a mean b**ch.
For sure, but I’ve always wondered whether future generations will look back on us in the same way as we do the Victorians.
@Not the IT Dept.:
Just curious….did your high school have ashtrays in it?
My high school annual is very close to that time frame. It has no racial images at all: people dressed in sheets, ropes, slogans, or Confederate Army images. And this is a southern area.
What it does have are the styles back then. Oxford shirts, slicked hair for the boys. The girls had mini – skirts and hair styles that required two cans of hair spray – extra strength. It has some hot car photos from the parking lot: Dodge Charger, Pontiac GTO, Ford Galaxie 500, Chevy Chevelle SS. The hippy age was just getting started, about three years after it hit San Fran: things are slow to get to this area. There were a few that went to Woodstock; but they wouldn’t admit it.
I’m glad that we don’t have yearbooks here in the Southern Hemisphere.
I graduated from H-F in June 1966. I went to many Viking home games.
Can’t recall if Marist was on the schedule then.
@James Pearce: My high school had ash trays for the teachers lounge. The students had a designated smoking area outside.
I haven’t seen an ash tray in years. Strange how back then we were so used
to people smoking everywhere. Now, if it is even outside I start coughing and have to get away quickly.
There were a few that went to Woodstock; but they wouldn’t admit it.
Can’t imagine why not.
When I tell today’s college students how I saw Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead for free in Golden Gate Park on Sundays when I lived in San Francisco many of them tell me about how their parents and grandparents are Deadheads.
I get a kick out of it.
The other thing I tell them is that there used to be smoking sections inside the University Library.
They don’t believe me.
I never used the undergrad library where all of my friends went to ‘study’ most weeknights… I couldn’t stand the smoke.
@Stormy Dragon: I am glad you mentioned the fraternity angle. I had thought about that when the Virginia governor flap started up. That certainly would make perfect sense – the fraternities get these pictures in the yearbooks. But a lot of college administrations are reluctant to take on fraternities: “everybody does it” thinking.
Now I suddenly am having this strange craving to watch “Animal House”. I guess I will try to find a copy this weekend somewhere.
I would like to see some yearbooks from Radcliffe.
I went to the same school as my parents, a generation apart of course, and it was inconceivable to me that there used to be a smoking area on school property for students. By the time I went (91-95) no one was smoking on school property.
I once saw my math teacher emerging from the bushes just off school grounds, reeking of Marlboro Lights. I was ditching. He was smoking. We said nothing as we passed each other and never mentioned it after.
@Not the IT Dept.: No kidding!
@James Pearce: I graduated from high school in 1970. In answer to your question, yes, but only in the teacher’s lounge. Kids in shop classes and ceramics and middle schoolers taking “crafts” all made them, though. If your parents didn’t smoke, you sometimes gave the one you made to a favorite teacher.
ETA: In Seattle, students had to smoke off campus–a violation of the “closed campus” policies of the time, but mostly students got away with smoking on the street above the school because policing the policy was too labor intensive in a 2000 student high school.
I was in high school in rural Alabama 20 years after that and there was none of that sort of thing, either. High school yearbooks are much more closely supervised.
I haven’t gone through my college yearbooks lately but I know that, at a minimum, there were photos of KA fraternity members in Confederate uniforms. I certainly don’t recall KKK or blackface stuff.
I gather a lot of the stuff in these college yearbooks surveyed were lame attempts at humor by privileged white kids rather than actual indication of KKK leanings.
My comment was a response to Steve’s remark:
I suspect that if we kept searching, and added in high school yearbooks, we would find tons more.
It only reports what I have experienced and is not meant to be a generalization of Junior High School and High School yearbooks over the years.
I spent a lot of quality time at college. Some of it was actually spent in class.
I never did get a degree but don’t regret a minute of it.
Since I am not in the in the College yearbook the closest tome I can point to as a chronicle of those days is:
The cover art was drawn before the book was written by one of my fellow travelers to San Francisco, the late Marvin Hill. He is in the bottom right with the glasses.
My friend Joe is in the wheelchair bottom center.
@Mister Bluster: They are changing the name of that building.
Danville has had some really rough times over the last decade =/