Washington and Lee yearbooks depicted blackface too

A review of old Calyx yearbooks archived in Special Collections showed racist photos, jokes and drawings, as well as references to sexual assault.


Hannah Denham

Virginia politics have been plagued with scandals the past month, from the governor and attorney general’s histories of blackface to sexual assault allegations against the lieutenant governor.

Recent events have prompted national research into old yearbooks in colleges and universities across the southern United States, and the findings have shown it’s not specific to Gov. Ralph Northam or Eastern Virginia Medical School.

Washington and Lee University also isn’t exempt.

A review of archived Calyx yearbooks shows multiple photographs depicting blackface, minstrel shows and racist jokes and drawings. However, none of the individuals in the photos were identified by name.

Photo from Special Collections at Washington and Lee University.

After news broke about Northam and a national reporter reached out to the university’s Special Collections, the department, including staff members and students, started an internal review of archives and isolated ones that displayed blackface. The Ring-tum Phi reviewed the seven yearbooks that Special Collections identified: 1898, 1926, 1928, 1941, 1955, 1958 and 1982.  

The most recent image that Special Collections flagged was in the 1982 yearbook, on the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity page. The editor-in-chief of the Calyx that year was John T. Huskin, Jr., ‘83.

Huskin said he vaguely recalled including the photo, but that he didn’t see it as blackface.

“When I looked it up, I initially thought it was someone dressed up as the devil, as red would reproduce as black,” he said in an email. “More likely it appears to be someone dressed up as a bison. I don’t think I would have perceived this as representing or demeaning someone of color.”

Other photos from previous years showed student organizations, such as a theatre group, the Troubadours, that performed minstrel shows.


From 1928. Photo from Special Collections at Washington and Lee University.
From 1926. Photo from Special Collections at Washington and Lee University.

The minstrel shows continued into the 1950s.

Photo from Special Collections at Washington and Lee University.
Photo from Special Collections at Washington and Lee University.

The second and third images were both from 1958—the same year Louis Armstrong performed on campus.

Photo from Special Collections at Washington and Lee University.

Others were from Mock Convention, such as these images of men in blackface, representing South Carolina and Louisiana for the Republican Convention in 1940.

Photo from Special Collections at Washington and Lee University.

A drawing featured in the 1928 yearbook shows two Ku Klux Klan members standing next to a lynching of a black person. The quote from Henry W. Grady, a Civil War-era journalist, reads, “He finds his home in ruins, his farm devastated, his slaves free, his people without law.”

Photo from Special Collections at Washington and Lee University.

But this image didn’t originate with Washington and Lee University, or even the Calyx. The same stock image with the Henry W. Grady quote was also published in 1930 in both Middle Tennessee State University’s Midlander yearbook and Birmingham-Southern College’s La Revue yearbook.

Tom Camden, the head of Special Collections and Archives, said this image from the yearbook has never been made public before. The first time he came across it, he said it turned his stomach.

“My very first thought was, ‘Oh, that needs to go away. That needs to go in the trash. That needs to be buried,” Camden said. “But that’s not how we do things here…We will not, we cannot repress.”

The only archives that have restricted access, he said, are ones from donors who specifically requested it. Otherwise, the archives are open for public access.

That same issue includes drawings of a Confederate flag, African-Americans picking cotton in a field, an actor in blackface from a troubadour show and the following joke in the humor section:

“A negro mammy had sent her little Rastus to the spring for water. A few minutes later she happened to look out the window and saw her little off-spring tearing across the field as fast as his short, black legs would carry him. He dashed into the house with his face the color of putty and his hair standing on end. Mammy: ‘Chile, how come you didn’t bring mah wata’?’ Rastus: ‘Mammy, dey is a alligator in de spring.’ Mammy: ‘Go way, boy. Dey ain’t no alligator in dat spring. Go get mah wata’. Even if dey is a alligator in dat spring, don’t you know he would be just as ‘fraid of you as you is of him, Rastus?’ Rastus: ‘Well, mammy, if dat is so dey ain’t no use of me going afta’ no wata’, ’cause if dat alligator is as scared of me as I is of him, dat wata’ ain’t fit to drink by now.”

Photo from Special Collections at Washington and Lee University.
Photo from Special Collections at Washington and Lee University.

Camden said it was important to contextualize the findings with the time period.

“If you think about the public climate of our region in the ‘20s, we’re talking about the height of Jim Crow,” he said. “We’re talking about a period where, as awful as those images were to us today, how they just kind of assault your sensibilities. How inhumane is that? Why was that not obvious?”

He added that this is especially hard to do with issues of racism and sexism.

“If you look at the tenor of the times, you’ll have a better understanding about how it happened without anybody questioning it,” Camden said. “But that doesn’t make it any less reprehensible.”

Some of the jokes referenced sexual assault. From the 1926 issue: “Broken Bottles: It’s better to flask’er before you ask’er.”

Photo from Special Collections at Washington and Lee University.

Another joke featured in the 1928 issue depicts a man holding a woman on his lap with the following caption:

“Mary: ‘John, keep your hands off me.’

John: ‘Aw, Mary, haven’t you a heart?’

Mary: ‘Sure, but you have been looking for it long enough now.’”

The first class of female students entered the university in 1985. The Board of Trustees had voted the year before 17-7 in favor of coeducation, according to the university website.

A Washington Post article published in 1990 about Virginia Military Institute’s move toward coeducation described similar fears that women would ruin tradition at Washington and Lee five years before.

“For much of the school’s history, the social life focused on weekend excursions to nearby women’s colleges such as Randolph-Macon, Hollins, Mary Baldwin or Sweet Briar,” reporter Peter Barker wrote in the article. “But with the advent of coeducation, three sororities have been formed at the university, and ‘going down the road’ is no longer the chief pastime. ‘The quality of girls here is just obviously so much better,’ explained senior Travis Blain, 21, as he gulped a beer outside the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house with music blaring last weekend.”

Barker described the shift from viewing women only as fraternity formal dates to equals in an academic environment, which proved itself: with the admission of women came higher scores and selectivity.

As a historian, Camden said he wanted to emphasize the necessity of programs like the Working Group on the History of African Americans at W&L and the Commission on Institutional History and Community in the face of conflict: from the Confederate battle flag in Lee Chapel, to the Charlottesville rally, to the present situation.

“This is part of our past,” he said. “We need to talk about it. Civil discourse is the answer. Civil discourse is always the answer. But the argument can be made that, ‘Yes, civil discourse is the answer, but there comes a point where you have to stop talking and take some action.’”

Calyx editor Kate Flory, ‘21, did not respond to requests for comment.

Special Collections Assistants Seth McCormick-Goodhart and Byron Faidley contributed to research for this story.