North Carolina

Wake Forest, Elon reviewed old yearbooks for racist images. Here’s what they found.

Interim UNC President condemns black face photo found in 1979 UNC yearbook

"That's a horrific part of our past," said interim UNC System president Bill Roper about a racist image found on the Chi Phi fraternity page of a 1979 UNC yearbook. The image has "no place then or now in our university system" Roper said on Thursday.
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"That's a horrific part of our past," said interim UNC System president Bill Roper about a racist image found on the Chi Phi fraternity page of a 1979 UNC yearbook. The image has "no place then or now in our university system" Roper said on Thursday.

A search of a century’s worth of Elon University yearbooks yielded two photos of male students wearing paint on their faces, along with “depictions of cultural appropriation,” and “crude cartoons and some blackface ‘minstrel shows,’” according to a report from the school.

A review of Wake Forest University’s yearbook, known as The Howler, unearthed lynching references, racial slurs and photos of students with blackface makeup, the school reported.

The two private North Carolina universities are among many reviewing old yearbooks for racist images after photos of a person in blackface and one in a Ku Klux Klan-like robe were found on Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s page in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook. The finding inspired other searches and related discoveries, including a 1979 UNC-Chapel Hill yearbook that depicted fraternity members dressed in Klan-style robes pretending to lynch another student wearing blackface.

Elon and Wake Forest posted the results of internal yearbooks reviews on their websites Friday.

“I think every school, especially schools in the South, are probably examining yearbook materials,” Elon spokesman Dan Anderson said in a phone interview.

Elon library and archive staff found the two photos of male students with their faces painted in yearbooks published in the 1950s, according to a university post describing the review and its findings.

“It is unclear in either instance what the specific reason was for painting their faces, or if the students were appearing in blackface,” the website post states.

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A photo on the Sigma Phi Beta fraternityÕs page in a 1957 Elon University yearbook. The image was one of two images with students wearing paint on their face in a recent Elon review of its yearbook. Elon University

In one uncaptioned photo in a 1959 Elon student-published yearbook, known as Phi Psi Cli, the students have paint on their faces, including stripes and other designs in some cases.

A photo from a few years earlier has the caption “Clowning around,” for a handful of shirtless male students wearing black paint on their faces, along with paint depicting other designs on their bodies.

The Elon yearbook review also found “depictions of cultural appropriation, mostly focused on Native Americans,” linked to photos of talent and variety shows and its sports teams competing against schools with Native American mascots.

Founded in 1889, Elon has a 656-acre campus in Alamance County and serves about 7,000 students. Elon also had a law school in downtown Greensboro.

The review, the post states, also found “crude cartoons and some blackface ‘minstrel shows’ ,” including a 1942 yearbook with the theme “In the Land of Cotton,” which uses “idealized images of black life in the 19th century rural South,” as a background in the yearbook.

Elon President Connie Ledoux Book requested the review, the school’s post states.

“I find it painful to look at these hurtful racial stereotypes and consider the experience of our African American and Native American employees, and later students, during these periods of Elon’s past,” Book said in the post. “Taking an honest and courageous look at our history will strengthen our understanding of not only our past, but of who we are today and who we want to be in the future. These visuals strengthen our resolve and our commitment to equality — at Elon and beyond.”

A review of Wake Forest’s 1970s yearbooks produced multiple pictures of people in blackface, including one with a group of four people appearing to sing into a microphone. Two of those people appear to be wearing slave-like clothing and blackface; another is a photo of someone in blackface with person in a KKK-like white hood and robe.

Wake Forest University President Nathan O. Hatch said he was disheartened and disturbed to learn about the images, according to the school’s post.

“Wearing blackface is racist and offensive — then and now,” Hatch said, the post reported. “The behavior in these images does not represent the inclusive University we aspire to be.”

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A photo from a page in a 1977 Wake Forest University yearbook shows four young men in blackface. Wake Forest University

Wake Forest College was founded in 1834 on a northern Wake County plantation by the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. It was relocated to Winston-Salem in 1956 and currently has about 8,000 students, according to its website.

School officials said they’re taking new actions to address the photos as well as continuing with efforts that seek to explore their histories and to create more inclusive and welcoming environments for students of color.

Elon officials are discussing adding an advisory to yearbooks online “so that people understand that these are historical documents and that they don’t always convey what we condone in modern times,” Anderson said.

Wake Forest plans to hold a forum on the issue later this month.

“We have made a lot of progress, and we have a lot more progress to make as a community,” Wake Forest spokeswoman Katie Neal said in an interview.

In 2018, Elon launched a 12-member committee to examine its history, engage the community in conversations about its past and uncover “hidden stories,” the post states.

Charles Irons, chair of the committee, said “a possible redemptive storyline in the barrage of shocking images we have seen this week ... is that they may strengthen the community’s resolve to address enduring patterns of anti-black racism and other forms of discrimination,” according to the post.

Elon and Wake Forest have also joined the Universities Studying Slavery, a collaboration with 49 other institutions, including UNC-Chapel Hill, that seeks to address issues dealing with race and inequality and the legacy of slavery, the post stated.

Elon’s and Wake Forest’s yearbooks are available online through DigitalNC.

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