Beyond blackface: How college yearbooks captured protest and change

Ever since a photograph surfaced of someone in blackface – and another dressed in a Ku Klux Klan robe – on the medical college yearbook page of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam in February, efforts to scour college yearbooks have focused on finding similarly racist imagery.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at a news conference after revelations that his medical school yearbook page features photos of a man in blackface. Steve Helber/AP
USA Today, for instance, sent 78 reporters to page through more than 900 college yearbooks from the 1970s and ‘80s. The newspaper not only discovered photographs of students dressed in KKK robes and blackface, but also at mock lynchings and other blatant “displays of racism.”

This focus on the racist reveling of college graduates from yesteryear who are today’s power elite is justified. However, as one who has studied college yearbooks – and who has written a book about going to college in the sixties – I believe this narrow focus on racist imagery obscures a similarly important element of college yearbooks that began to appear during a critical turning point for higher education in the United States.

Black representation

One of my biggest concerns with the current focus on racist imagery in college yearbooks is that in the search for images of blackface, journalists and others are overlooking the importance of the faces of black students. Black representation is important to consider because it wasn’t until the latter half of the 20th century that many of America’s colleges and universities began to accept black students.

Because of the topic of my book, I’ve mostly studied yearbooks from the 1960s – some 20 years before Northam graduated from medical school. During this time period, in the Southeastern Conference – where a Confederate legacy still loomed – the first African-American student on a varsity basketball team was Perry Wallace of Vanderbilt during the 1967-68 season when he was a sophomore. Wallace appears on five different pages of the 1969 edition of The Vanderbilt Commodore, the college yearbook at Vanderbilt University. Perry majored in electrical engineering. He graduated from Columbia Law School and went on to become a distinguished law professor at George Washington University.

Vanderbilt’s Perry Wallace (25) scoops the rebound down from the Kentucky basket, in 1968, in Lexington, Kentucky. H.B. Littell/AP
The 1968 and 1969 editions of The Kentuckian – the college yearbook at the University of Kentucky where I teach – are also interesting case studies.

The University of Kentucky is home of the first African-Americans to play football in the Southeastern Conference: Greg Page and Nate Northington, later joined by Wilbur Hackett and Houston Hogg. The 1968 edition of the university’s yearbook – The Kentuckian – focused on a team tragedy – Page’s death. “Page had lain paralyzed for over a month due to an injury suffered in preseason practice,” an entry in the yearbook states. “But as it had to be, football continued.”

The appearance of black students in college yearbooks during this time period serves as a historical reminder that even though many colleges had become racially desegregated earlier, campus activities were still often racially exclusive. Black students were first admitted to the University of Kentucky in 1949 but were not allowed to participate in many student activities until much later – 1967 in the case of varsity sports. That’s a long delay. It indicates that admission did not necessarily mean full citizenship within the campus community.

Jim Green, the first African-American track and field athlete at the University of Kentucky, who went on to win NCAA championships, was honored in the 1969 Kentuckian as one of the university’s ‘Pacesetters’ for outstanding contributions in 1968-1969. The Kentuckian

An era of protest

My other concern about the focus on racist imagery is that it distracts from the fact that, particularly during the late 1960s, college yearbooks helped chronicle an era of student protest and campus activism. Sometimes, college yearbook editors deliberately put images of traditional campus events alongside images of demonstrations and protests.

That’s what Gretchen Marcum Brown, editor of The Kentuckian had in mind during her stint as editor for the 1969 edition, which is particularly noteworthy for the amount of material that reflects black culture and politics. For instance, the 1969 yearbook features speakers such as civil rights activist Julian Bond, The Supremes, and extended photo caption information about a black history course and the Black Student Union. In a recent interview for this article, Brown told me she wanted to document the intense political events taking place on and off campus during the 1968-69 academic year.