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Beyond Blackface

A look back reveals history of racism in University publications

Copies of Corks and Curls
Steve Hedberg

As Virginia politicians’ blackface past was catching up with them this year, the University of Virginia didn’t have to look over its shoulder to see what was coming. It had already started to face racism in its history, digging in and publicly discussing its associations with slavery, white supremacy and segregation.

But the blackface scandals that nearly took down Gov. Ralph Northam and tarnished Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (Col ’83, Grad ’87) brought fresh attention to the University’s self-examination about past racism and heightened scrutiny of the student yearbook and alumni publications.

Turning page by page, researchers had already found plenty of racist images and expressions in Corks and Curls. Familiar African American figures on the Grounds in the 19th and early 20th century are caricatured as buffoons or condescendingly admired as faithful servants. Lynching is a cartoon gag in 1914 (and returns as a cryptic commentary in 1971).  Into the 1930s, racial slurs are common in dialect jokes and verse that denigrate black characters as lazy or ignorant. The rank racism in the yearbook tapers off in the 1940s, though not entirely. Blackface recurs throughout, commonly in the modern era as costumes at parties and dances.

After the Northam episode, the staff at this magazine began looking through back issues, starting with predecessor Alumni News, from the 19th century to the modern era. Racist jokes and cartoons were found in the early 20th century. And racist dialect and cartoons from old yearbooks are republished in Alumni News in the 1950s. Until at least the 1960s, in club and banquet photos or other articles featuring white subjects, African American workers are routinely left unnamed, as though invisible.

 “Alumni News and Corks and Curls were actually a window into the culture, warts and all, the good and the abhorrent,” says Jenifer Andrasko (Darden ’10), president and CEO of the UVA Alumni Association.  “By all standards today, we’re sickened by the images, but we’re accountable for our history.”

“It reflects a larger, American visual culture—a visual culture that grew out of white supremacy and reinforced white supremacy,” John Edwin Mason, an associate professor of history, told the Cavalier Daily. “It’s a visual culture that allowed people to literally see African Americans as inferior, African Americans as docile, or African Americans as humorous or African Americans as vicious.”

Current Corks and Curls editor Ansley Gould (Com ’20) says the yearbook staff intends to discard the name, having recognized its association with blackface minstrelsy—burnt cork for blackening makeup and a wig to simulate Afro curls. Gould says that association was unsuspected, noting the traditional explanation that the name is rooted in 19th century UVA slang.

That generally unexamined traditional explanation comes from the original editors’ preface to the first edition in 1888. They wrote that “corks” referred to the mortifying student experience of being unprepared for a question and “curls” referred to the delight of winning praise for performing well in class. Under even light scrutiny, though, the preface is plainly satirical, even preposterously tracing “curls” to an observation about a UVA student by George Washington, who died 25 years before the first class at the University. The Washington tall tale is even attributed to “Judge Twiddler,” a comic character readers would have recognized from stories by a writer whose popularity then rivaled Mark Twain’s.

History professor Kirt von Daacke (Col ’97), who has examined archived yearbooks from across the South, says the original yearbook editors must have seen the name as a clever double entendre, slyly signifying minstrel blackface but also referring to actual student slang. He cites six examples of “corks” and “curls” used as slang for student performance at the University as early as 1849. The first yearbook’s editors were surely aware of the popular minstrel culture of the day, he says. The 1888 student credited with suggesting the name was a member of the Glee Club, which sometimes performed in blackface. Von Daacke even has an 1890s advertisement in which a Wake Forest minstrel performance is headlined “Cork and Curls!”

Whatever the original editors’ intention, Gould acknowledges the newfound blackface association and says it taints the name, which she hoped to change before this year’s printer deadline in May. That timetable was unlikely, she said, and the staff was still considering possible new names and a selection process that might involve the larger UVA community. “We don’t want to be hasty.”

The Northam blackface scandal erupted when a political website published the governor’s 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook page, which showed a person in blackface standing with a person in a Ku Klux Klan costume. A day after saying he was one of those people, Northam said he was neither, and couldn’t say why that photo was on his yearbook page. But he also disclosed that he had worn blackface later in 1984 for a Michael Jackson costume in a contest when he was in the Army. Calls for his resignation quickly multiplied, including from almost all of his own party’s state and national leaders. Herring, one of the fellow Democrats who had said Northam should resign, soon afterward revealed that he had put on blackface to portray a rapper in 1980, when he was an undergraduate at the University.

Around the state and around the country, the archives of college yearbooks were suddenly in demand, as reporters searched for stories, political operatives searched for material and universities searched for what might be embarrassing in their histories. For example, USA Today reporters examined 900 publications at 120 schools in 25 states, concentrating on the 1970s and 1980s, and compiled more than 200 images of “blatant racism” including blackface, mock lynchings and students in Ku Klux Klan robes and hoods.

Self-examination of racism in higher education was already well underway. Having established the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University under then-President Teresa A. Sullivan in 2013, UVA started an academic consortium that now includes more than 50 universities studying their history with slavery. Last year, as the 2013 commission released its report, its mission transitioned to a new President’s Commission on the University in the Age of Segregation, also empaneled by Sullivan. By the time the blackface scandal was causing chaos at the Capitol, research by the new commission had already overflowed its computer storage. “By January we had so many images they had to be put on an external hard drive,” says von Daacke, also co-chair of both commissions.

For comparisons, von Daacke examined archived yearbooks from Hampden-Sydney College, Washington and Lee University, Virginia Military Institute, the College of William and Mary and others. All showed racist images, he says, especially in the early 20th century, but most had toned down by the 1930s. “Ours are way, way worse,” von Daacke says. “I can’t find any that look like UVA does.” 

For example, the illustration on the title page for clubs and organizations in the 1922 Corks and Curls shows a mounted Klansman brandishing a burning cross against a blood-red sky. Lynching was not a thing of the past. A black man had been lynched by a mob in Brunswick County, south of Richmond, the previous year, and more would follow. And it was a major national issue in 1922, as the NAACP pushed Congress for a federal anti-lynching law. 

Von Daacke says Corks and Curls continued to feature images that mock or dehumanize African Americans through the civil rights movement of the 1960s, through the time that the University began to recruit African American students and end its de facto segregation. An image from that era of a mock lynching has drawn special attention because it was posted online by the Cavalier Daily and picked up in USA Today’s national story. In a photo on the Chi Psi fraternity page in the 1971 yearbook, armed members in black robes and hoods surround a mannequin in blackface hanging from a tree. Accompanying the photo is a quote from a 1966 song “Trouble Every Day” by Frank Zappa: “You know I’m not black, but there’s a whole lot of times I wish’d I wasn’t white.”

What that Chi Psi page was meant to convey is hard to pin down after nearly 50 years. The 1971 yearbook editors responsible emphatically say it was a deliberate anti-racism message. “We challenged the fraternities to do something different,” recalls Barry Leader (Col ’71), who was editor in chief. “The Chi Psi picture was the most emotion-wrenching picture in the book. The photo alone would have been inflammatory and negative, but coupled with the Zappa quote, it is an indictment of racism in a very powerful way.” 

Efforts to get an explanation or comment from Chi Psi members who were directly involved were unsuccessful.

“It’s part of a long historical arc,” von Daacke says of the pretend lynching and other photos in which fraternity members brandish weapons. “It’s in conversation with those images of an earlier era, even if they don’t know it. Portraying the KKK goes hand in hand with the dehumanization of African Americans.”

 “These start to disappear by the mid-1970s,” von Daacke says. “As women take over the yearbook staff, it gets better.”

When the UVA Alumni Association searched its own publications, it found material that “by all standards would be considered racist and offensive,” Andrasko says. “Our intention is to bring to light our place in the larger chronicle and take ownership, so there is no fear that we are trying to hide it or not take accountability.” 

As with Corks and Curls, the most blatant racist content in Alumni News dates to the early 20th century. In 1915, for example, the magazine published an article called “The Medical Aspect of the Negro Problem,” in which a UVA professor asserts that whites are menaced by the “disease and degeneracy” of African Americans who had not evolved to resist the evil temptations of white society. Using racial slurs freely, dialect stories and poems Alumni News published in this period portray African American characters as sly, lazy, subservient stereotypes. The dialect echoes author Joel Chandler Harris, whose semi-comic, sentimental folk tales and poems featuring former slave “Uncle Remus” were then highly popular. A reunion cartoon in 1916 shows an old black man doffing his hat to a returning alumnus, a Confederate veteran telling war stories, and a blackface worker at a barbecue pit. In 1922, among notices, sports scores and a congratulatory letter from former President Woodrow Wilson (Law 1880), Alumni News includes a mocking dialect joke about two black men, including the word “n------.”

“The University was complicit in the creation and maintenance of the ideology of white supremacy,” says Andrea Douglas (Grad ’96, ’01), von Daacke’s co-chair on the new commission and executive director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center in Charlottesville. The racist images, cartoons and stories in Corks and Curls or the “invisible” African American workers in Alumni News photos, she says, are evidence “of the need to create and maintain a subjugated space.”

That racism is true to its times. White supremacy was enshrined in the 1902 Virginia Constitution that disenfranchised African Americans with a poll tax and literacy test; the heroic myth of the Confederate “Lost Cause” was embedded in state textbooks; and Jim Crow laws mandated public segregation and forbade interracial marriage. Nationally, the blockbuster 1915 silent film Birth of a Nation, often credited with revitalizing a moribund Ku Klux Klan, portrayed Klansmen as saviors of Southern culture and freed slaves as subhuman rapists. Even the University’s first president, Edwin Alderman, in his inaugural speech in 1905, pledged his commitment to “the solemn obligations of racial integrity” and later made the University a center of eugenics, a pseudoscience built on the premise that blacks were genetically inferior.

And the UVA students who wrote those poems were typical students of their day who went on to respectable careers. For example, William Force Stead, whose comic ballad of wastrel UVA student life in the 1908 Corks and Curls refers to a baggage porter as “n-----” and “coon,” became an Anglican clergyman and serious poet in England. His poems were selected for an Oxford anthology by his friend W.B. Yeats, and when T.S. Eliot embraced Christianity in the 1920s, he went to Stead to be baptized.

Recognizing that perspective doesn’t make it less important or less necessary to examine the past with a critical eye, Andrasko says. “We sometimes use contextualization to justify behavior by the cultural norms at the time,” she says. “But all that does is allow people to feel less accountable.”

In 1952, with a story about the return of a traditional costume ball, Alumni News features a photo of students in blackface. In 1955, looking back at the history of the Alumni Association, the magazine reprinted a cartoon panel from the 1920s about “father of the Alumni Association” Lewis Crenshaw (Col 1908), including blackface caricatures of a cleaning woman and two children.

Like Walt Disney repopularizing Uncle Remus in the 1940s and 1950s, Alumni News in 1955 reprinted 1916 Corks and Curls material memorializing Henry Martin, the former enslaved worker and longtime University janitor and bell ringer who died in 1915. In a “Dramatic Monologue” in dialect, as if told to the writer, English Professor C. Alphonso Smith, “Uncle Henry” denigrates the value of education for “colored folks,” because too many end up in the state penitentiary “ ’cause they knowed too much.”  According to the man who has nodded in deference to generations of Virginia students, “Politeness beats learnin’.” And, ridiculing the idea of an African American in Congress, “P’fessor” Smith has “Uncle Henry” say, “My dog would be recognized as good as any colored man you could send.” 

Von Daacke says the University’s self-examination is not looking just inward and back in history, but outward and forward, addressing Charlottesville community issues such as equitable wages, equitable hiring and inequality in health care. “We’re on the cusp of something,” he says. “What can we do right now to make our community a better place? UVA can lead in the community.” 

Ernie Gates is a longtime newspaper editor and a freelance writer and editor living in Williamsburg, Virginia.