In review of yearbooks, American University officials uncover fifteen photos ‘of concern’

Eagle analysis of old issues found at least four photos of people in blackface

In review of yearbooks, American University officials uncover fifteen photos ‘of concern’

A 1958 Talon photo depicts a man speaking to an audience in blackface. 

Following several stories about the history of blackface on college campuses, officials at American University say they have found similarly racist photos in the archives of AU’s student yearbook. 

In a Monday email memo to the AU community, Provost Daniel Myers and Vice President of Campus Life and Inclusive Excellence Fanta Aw said they directed library staff and faculty to undertake a review of issues of The Talon and its predecessor, AUCOLA, which were published from 1926 to 2009. 

To view the entire gallery with captions, click here.

In those yearbooks, staff identified 15 photos, cartoons and drawings “of concern,” Myers and Aw wrote. Both administrators condemned the "abhorrent" images and the pain they have caused.

“Some clearly reflect racism, bigotry and ignorance toward African-Americans, Native Americans and Asian Americans,” they wrote. “Others will require more context to fully understand their meaning.” 

The Eagle reviewed online archives of the yearbooks ranging from 1926 to 1998 (AU does not have copies of yearbooks from 1999 to 2009 on its website). The analysis revealed at least four images depicting students in blackface, including pictures of fraternity members performing in a minstrel show. The photos range in date from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s, with the last blackface photo appearing in 1963. 

Minstrel shows, which featured white performers in blackface, have historically purported racist stereotypes about black people due to the exaggerated costumes and makeup that distort the features and culture of African-Americans, according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The history of blackface has been in the spotlight due to the discovery of a racist photo on Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page that depicts a person in blackface and another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood.

Other images showed people wearing Native American, Egyptian and Middle Eastern costumes. Those photos range in date from 1965 through 1991, when several students are pictured wearing Native American headdresses and makeup during a school event. 

In other photographs from the yearbooks, figures are shown hanging in effigy from campus buildings. It’s unclear from the images what the effigies are depicting. 

In their message, Myers and Aw said they will tap the expertise of AU scholars to work with archivists to coordinate efforts to review the “significance and history of these images,” adding that community members should “stay tuned for details.” 

“The images we have found require more than discovery, transparency, and apology; they deserve candid acknowledgement and action,” they wrote. “As we further develop our Plan for Inclusive Excellence, we must understand where we have been to inform where we are going.”

Reporting contributed by Evan Margiotta, Brandon Ermer, Nickolaus Mack, Maria Carrasco and Kelsey Carolan

Clarification: Two photos have been removed from the slideshow because The Eagle could not confirm their exact context and ties to racist imagery. 

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