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Last week, it seemed as though Virginia politicians’ racist chickens came home to roost. Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring admitted to wearing blackface in the past. Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment served as editor of his alma mater’s 1968 yearbook, which featured multiple pictures of students in blackface, as well as various racist slurs. These revelations have prompted journalists and activists to start looking for more racist skeletons in the state’s closets. And the fiasco has raised questions as to whether there are any decent politicians left in the state.

Blackface at the University of Richmond

After Herring publicly acknowledged that he wore blackface at a party in 1980, public and media scrutiny turned to yearbooks at the University of Richmond, where he earned his law degree. Katy Evans, a reporter for Richmond Times-Dispatch, tweeted a troubling image from the 1980 issue of the school’s yearbook, The Web. The image features five Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity members dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes, surrounding a black male student with a rope around his neck as though he was being lynched.

The black man (Michael Kizzie) who is gleefully being “lynched” is identifiable, both by his face and name. Kizzie, who graduated from Richmond in 1981, was asked to explain his participation in this reprehensible photograph in an article in the university’s newspaper, The Collegian. He said that he doesn’t remember how the photo came to be, but that it was a “pretty stupid idea.” However, the identities of the individuals in KKK garb remain unknown. I presume these were members of SAE fraternity, on whose yearbook page the photo appeared. And I doubt that they will willingly come forward. Since the university permanently banned SAE from campus in 2015, there are no current members of the fraternity to address their former members’ actions.

This was not the lone incident of blackface at Richmond. There are many such incidents featured in the university’s yearbooks throughout the 20th century. There were also many instances of Confederate, KKK and Nazi symbology in yearbook pictures. One can only wonder about those incidents that were not included in the yearbooks or that were not captured on camera. Certainly, in the digital era, there have been many more opportunities for students to post offensive imagery and statements, including racists comments on Yik Yak and video of a swastika-covered gingerbread house on Snapchat.

The evidence that the University of Richmond --- a highly selective private liberal arts college, in which wealthy white 18-  to 22-year-olds represent the dominant demographic among students -- has an ugly, racist history is undeniable. The first university president, Robert Ryland, owned slaves. As colleges were legally forced to integrate in the mid-1960s, Richmond actively resisted desegregation -- until the university finally admitted its first full-time, residential black students in 1968. (It would be another three years before the university’s band would stop performing “Dixie,” the Confederacy’s unofficial battle song.) Certainly, the university's location in the former capital of the Confederacy plays a large role in shaping the campus climate.

Racism is still an issue at Richmond, even if not in terms of the explicit discrimination of the past.

The Race & Racism at the University of Richmond Project

Former and current University of Richmond students are not unique in their participation in blackface and other racist practices. Another university in the city, Virginia Commonwealth University, is under scrutiny for images in past yearbooks featuring the repugnant practice. And, just days before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a member of Delta Delta Delta sorority at the University of Oklahoma posted a video of herself in blackface. Such repulsive practices are not even a uniquely “southern thing.”

Richmond does, however, stand out in its efforts to document and reckon with its racist past, specifically through “The Race & Racism at the University of Richmond Project.” The project was born out of a course, Digital Memory in the Archive, developed and taught by Nicole Maurantonio (chair of the Department of Rhetoric and Communications) in 2015. Maurantonio and her students scoured yearbooks, newspapers, magazines and other archival materials to dig into the university’s (at times) shameful past between the years of 1914 and 1932. Through their work, they found evidence of past practices of silencing of African American staff members, stigmatizing Chinese students and widespread use of racist slurs on campus.

The Race & Racism Project has only grown in the years since. In 2016, the university hired a full-time archivist, Irina Rogova, who has done a phenomenal job recruiting and supporting more student and faculty participants in the project. Richmond’s School of Arts & Sciences began financially supporting the project through summer fellowships for student researchers who conducted archival work and oral histories with alumni. This incredible research has yielded archival materials that span most of the 20th century.

The Race & Racism Project brings students, staff, faculty, administrators and alumni together to have the difficult discussions about the university’s racist past. Rather than trying to bury it, Richmond proudly presents findings of the Race & Racism Project, highlighting the intellectual and creative efforts of the campus community to sit face-to-face with our collective past. Even that horrifying image in the 1980 yearbook was already included in the project’s online archive. That is, we already knew and were not attempting to hide it. In an official statement about that yearbook photo, President Ronald A. Crutcher said, “We have no intention of varnishing our history. We are committed to understanding the dark and troubling moments of our past and learning from them.”

To complement this work, Crutcher launched a Presidential Commission for University History and Identity this year as one of three strategic initiatives on thriving and inclusion. The commission is co-chaired by two heavy hitters on matters of race and history: Professor Lauranett Lee (a public historian and the founding curator of African American history at the Virginia Historical Society) and Professor Edward Ayers (Richmond’s previous president and a historian of the Civil War). And university administration is currently considering how to best make the Race & Racism Project a permanent entity on campus, possibly with its own physical structure and a full staff. There is serious institutional commitment to this work.

Despite the recent media coverage of the racist 1980 yearbook photo, the realities of racism in the University of Richmond’s past is not news nor is it surprising. The hard work of faculty, student researchers and staff in the Race & Racism at the University of Richmond Project has exploded into a digital archive that parallels the efforts of similar efforts at other schools like the University of Virginia, the College of William & Mary, Georgetown University and Harvard University. Obviously, the university cannot escape its racist past and, in many ways, remains a racist institution. But our campus community is doing the difficult work of acknowledging its flaws, embracing evolution, growth, reconciliation and redemption.

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