After outrage over UNC blackface photos, NC’s online yearbook archive stays busy

The Chi Phi fraternity pages in the 1979 UNC yearbook, Yackety Yack.
The Chi Phi fraternity pages in the 1979 UNC yearbook, Yackety Yack. Yackety Yack

A free digital archive of yearbooks from North Carolina colleges and high schools has seen about twice its normal number of visitors in the past week, since the rediscovery of racist photos in a book included on the site.

Lisa Gregory, program coordinator for the N.C. Digital Heritage Center, launched nearly a decade ago and housed in the University Libraries at UNC, said Wednesday that typically about 1,500 users visit the site each week. But after a photo from the 1979 UNC Yackety Yack — showing students at a campus fraternity party dressed in KKK-style robes pretending to lynch a student in blackface — went viral last week, about 3,000 people have visited the site to look at about 25,000 pages.

“We have definitely seen an increase of traffic,” Gregory said in a phone interview.

Yearbooks were among the first items the Digital Heritage Center began collecting, scanning and putting online, Gregory said, and they remain among the most popular items available on the site.

“It was a good way to show people what we do and how we work,” Gregory said. “And they are very popular. Most every American knows what a yearbook is.”

So far, the site has digitized more than 7,700 yearbooks from North Carolina high schools and colleges. It still does not have yearbooks from schools in each of the state’s 100 counties, Gregory said.

The yearbooks come from a variety of sources: schools or school systems, local libraries, museums and other institutions that archive historical documents. Usually, Gregory said, the institution brings the collection to UNC, where technicians scan the books page by page. When they’re finished, the books are returned to their owners, and the digital version is posted online.

Turnaround time is usually about three months, Gregory said.

The books are posted without editorial comment or content warnings about potentially offensive material.

“Libraries, museum, archives — we collect sort of the full spectrum of human history, the good, the bad and ugly,” Gregory said. “We’re used to seeing things that conflict with current culture.”

The Yackety Yack photo drew wide attention after being posted Feb. 6 by the editor of The Insider, a News & Observer publication.

Chrisann Ohler, editor of the 1979 Yackety Yack, said a yearbook photographer took the “lynching” shot and another of two students in blackface at an “Old South” themed party for the Chi Phi fraternity. Ohler, reached in California where she now lives, said she and others on the yearbook staff were appalled at the time to see that UNC students would mock others in such a way.

Ohler said she believed that running the photos in the yearbook would embarrass fraternity members or prompt school leaders to discipline the group. Either way, she said, she thought publishing the photos would bring the behavior to an end.

When they saw the photos, Ohler said, many people on campus got angry but, “They were angry that it was published, and we were angry that it was happening. That was the frustration.”

When the photos resurfaced last week, UNC leaders denounced them and said there was no place at UNC now for the kind of behavior they showed.

Gregory said that since the Yack photos brought attention to the digital yearbook archive, one school, which she would not immediately name, had asked to have its yearbook temporarily taken down, which the Digital Heritage Center agreed to do.

Meanwhile, she said, other schools have reached out to say they would like to have their yearbook collections added to the site.

The Digital Heritage Center is a joint project of the UNC-Chapel Hill University Library and the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

Gregory said the Digital Heritage Center usually does not know what purpose people have when they peruse the yearbook collection. But many of those who call the center asking for help say they are looking for photos of family members among the pages of the old books. If they contact the center saying they are offended by something they saw on the site, Gregory said staff members refer them to the organizations that provided the materials.

“Our mission is access, and increasing open access is something that we are very passionate about,” she said.

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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.