Blackface, the practice of wearing black paint to depict African-Americans in stereotypical or humiliating ways, has a history at the University of Virginia.
After two of Virginia’s highest-ranking officials revealed that they had worn blackface in the 1980s, a review of UVa’s independent yearbook, Corks and Curls, revealed several instances of blackface and yellowface, along with mentions of the Ku Klux Klan and slavery.
Attorney General Mark R. Herring revealed Wednesday that he wore blackface to portray a rapper at a college party in 1980.
“This was a onetime occurrence and I accept full responsibility for my conduct,” he said in a statement.
Herring graduated from UVa in 1983. The school issued a statement Wednesday evening condemning the practice of racist depictions.
“This latest revelation underscores how important it is to continue honest conversations about our past, whether distant or not-so-distant, and how that past continues to influence our present,” UVa spokesman Anthony de Bruyn wrote in a statement.
After it was found that Gov. Ralph Northam’s page in his Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook featured a photo of a man in blackface and another man in a Ku Klux Klan robe, UVa President Jim Ryan issued a statement Sunday that did not directly ask Northam to resign but said it was hard for leaders to govern after trust was lost.
Northam now disputes that he is in the photo but said he once put shoe polish on his face for a Michael Jackson costume.
Ryan’s office did not respond to a question of whether Herring had contacted him. The statement did not say whether Ryan thought Herring should resign.
Depictions of parties and events in Corks and Curls show a party culture at a Southern university that, for much of its history, was all-white and all-male.
In 1922, the page divider for Clubs and Organizations featured an illustration of a hooded man on a horse, leading other Klansmen in a stampede. The heading of the Law Review page included an illustration of a kneeling, shackled slave.
In 1956, a photo depicts a grinning man wearing a wide hat and pulling a woman in a rickshaw at a party. His eyebrows and eyelids have been painted in a caricature of a Chinese person.
In 1958, a photo shows a group of white men with black-painted faces holding sharpened sticks and painted shields.
In 2002, two UVa fraternities were briefly suspended after several guests attended a party in blackface.
“I’m not surprised you found such pics in UVa yearbooks. I would have been surprised if you hadn’t,” said Larry J. Sabato, a professor of political science and a 1974 UVa graduate. “There was a sizable element of students who were living in the past back then. Many were legacies, and from wealthy Southern and Virginia families. No doubt there are still some, but today they know enough to hide their regressive racial views — most of the time, anyway.”
Chad Montrie, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, has studied instances of blackface at predominantly white institutions and in the North. The practice depended not just on the failings of an individual, he said, but on a society that viewed African-Americans as inferior.
“One thing that’s been interesting about this [scandal] is it speaks to a gap in the literature; we think of blackface and minstrelsy predominately in the 19th century, but of course it didn’t go away,” he said. “It’s all there, right in a yearbook on the shelf.”
On Tuesday, Richard Horman, president of Eastern Virginia Medical School, apologized for a pattern of “shockingly racist” photos in the school’s yearbooks. The school has hired a team of lawyers to investigate racist culture in its past and present, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Kirt von Daacke, co-chair of UVa’s commission on segregation, said his group is in the midst of a page-by-page review of student publications. So far, he said, he has worked through the first half of the 20th century.
“As soon as the yearbook starts publication, it has a lot of racist imagery, up to the 1930s,” von Daacke said, describing depictions and descriptions of minstrel shows, the Klan and slavery. “It disappears from the yearbooks by and large by the 1970s, though Confederate flags are still at every football game. It doesn’t mean it wasn’t here; it means they didn’t put it in the yearbook.”
The student-led yearbook recently relaunched under the same name after a hiatus.
Blackface began in minstrel shows before the Civil War, and it typically fictionalized slaves with Klansmen, according to Rhae Lynn Barnes, an assistant professor of history at Princeton University and an expert on the practice.
In 1886, UVa’s University Minstrel Troupe donated proceeds of a show featuring blackface and yellowface to help fund the school’s chapel, according to the Virginia University Magazine.
According to an editorial by Barnes, the name Corks and Curls is likely also a reference to minstrels’ practice of burning cork to blacken their faces and wearing curly wigs.
Members of the current Corks and Curls staff did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday, but the yearbook’s website says the name references unprepared students who “corked up” when asked to answer a question and students who performed well in class “curled up” in delight.
The 1888 first edition of the yearbook contains an explanation of the name that appears to match the website’s description, and it references Henry Martin, a former slave who continued to work at UVa after Emancipation.
In the explanation, editors wrote of a fictional student who won a contest by suggesting the name and received a chromolithograph of Martin as a prize.
Von Daacke said he believed the name referenced slang for good and bad students, but that the original editors, in naming Martin and alluding to minstrelsy, also likely appreciated its double meaning.
“I don’t know anything about ‘corks and curls’ as slang for a minstrel show,” said Carrie Brown, who worked for the yearbook from 1996 to 2000 and later served on its managing board. “I’m not surprised that there are pictures in blackface from the early 1980s. I would be shocked if you found anything like that in the late 1990s at UVa when I was on staff ... I think yearbooks document life as [it was] — good and bad.”