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UNC leaders denounce blackface in 1979 yearbook photo that is sparking viral outrage

Photos from a late 1970s UNC yearbook that show white members of university fraternities partying in Klan costumes and pretending to lynch a classmate wearing blackface have caused outrage on social media and strong denouncements from campus officials.

The photos were initially posted Wednesday by Colin Campbell, editor of the N.C. Insider, a News & Observer publication, on his personal Twitter page. The first photo was of two white students dressed in white hooded robes approximating the garb of the Ku Klux Klan, holding onto a rope that appears to be draped over a chandelier and tied in a noose around the neck of another student. That student, also white, is covered in blackface makeup.

Campbell posted the photos with the comment, “Randomly flipped through the 1979 UNC-Chapel Hill yearbook today just to kill some time, and found this photo on one of the fraternities’ pages.”

1979 UNC Yearbook.jpg
The Chi Phi fraternity page in the 1979 UNC yearbook, Yackety Yack. Yackety Yack

He posted additional photos showing the pages from which the images were taken, which identified the fraternity as Chi Phi.

The photos generated a range of responses, including one from the national Chi Phi organization, which said, “We strongly denounce the behavior and sentiments displayed in these images. Bigotry is not welcome in our Fraternity.”

University of North Carolina officials also spoke to the photos, first on the schools’ Twitter page, where it said, “The University condemns the behavior depicted in these photos. Racism has no place on our campus.”

On Thursday morning, Dr. Bill Roper, interim UNC system president, was asked about the photos during a media availability with Kevin Guskiewicz, who was just named interim chancellor of the Chapel Hill campus on Wednesday.

“There’s a number of things about our past that we need to understand and deal with,” Roper said. “That’s a horrific part of our past, one that I think has no place then or now in our university system.”

Guskiewicz, also asked about the images on Thursday, said, “We clearly became aware of this last evening. As President Roper said, there’s no place certainly now or in the past — I don’t believe that that reflects what our university is about today, nor could I believe it represents what it was about back in 1979. So we are disheartened by that and we’ll continue to monitor it.”

Joel Curran, vice chancellor of university communications, said Thursday that, “The photos found in the 1979 student yearbook are abhorrent. We fully and wholly condemn both the photos and the racist behavior they depict. That kind of behavior has no place on our campus now or then.” Curran said the yearbook is designed and created entirely by students.

Thousands of yearbooks from North Carolina schools are available for viewing online through the N.C. Digital Heritage Center.

Old college yearbooks have recently generated a number of controversial photos, including ones from the page of Virginia’s current governor, Democrat Ralph Northam, when he was a student at Eastern Virginia Medical School in 1984. The photo shows a person in blackface and one in a KKK-style robe. Northam at one point apologized for posing for the photo, but later said it was not him. He did, though, acknowledge that he once applied shoe polish to his face and attended a party as Michael Jackson.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture, a division of the Smithsonian, says blackface first appeared in the 1830s in New York, when performers would apply shoe polish or the char from a burnt cork and wear tattered clothing to mimic enslaved Africans living in the South.

“These performances characterized blacks as lazy, ignorant, superstitious, hypersexual, and prone to thievery and cowardice,” the museum says on the site, adding that an industry grew up around the style, including the manufacturing of sheet music, makeup, costumes and “a ready set of stereotypes upon which to build new performances.”

Blackface had long fallen out of style as a comedic form by the time the UNC photos were published. Their appearance in the yearbook, called the Yackety Yack, offended many people on campus at the time.

An editorial in the UNC campus newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, criticized their use when the yearbook landed on campus in Spring 1980. A photo of the editorial has been shared on Twitter by Brad Kutrow, who was associate editor of the DTH at the time and said he wrote the piece.

“They were, we assume, clowning around for a photographer,” he wrote at the time. “Still, their callousness and insensitivity toward racism, the most deep-rooted problem confronting our society, is appalling.”

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Martha Quillin is a general assignment reporter at The News & Observer who writes about North Carolina culture, religion and social issues. She has held jobs throughout the newsroom since 1987.
Jane Stancill has reported on higher ed for The News & Observer for 20 years. She has won state and national awards for her coverage of education.
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