North Texas Daily

Blackface, racist language found in UNT yearbooks from 1950 to 1963

Blackface, racist language found in UNT yearbooks from 1950 to 1963

Blackface, racist language found in UNT yearbooks from 1950 to 1963
March 28
01:11 2019

Images of people in blackface, racist language and students dressed in traditional Native American and Asian attire were found by the North Texas Daily in UNT yearbooks spanning from 1950 to 1963.

The Daily began looking at UNT’s yearbooks after USA Today published a story in which a team looked at 900 yearbooks from 120 colleges across the country.

“A crowd of weird looking people watches Donna Belt’s interpretative dancing at a Zeta Tau Alpha costume party given by the fall pledge class,” reads a caption under a picture of a group of students, many of whom are in blackface, in the 1962 Yucca — the university’s yearbook at the time — on page 305.

Doug Campbell, the journalism subject librarian at UNT, said he is not surprised to see these racist portrayals in past yearbooks and that he would be surprised to not find those images.

“If they took photos of people in blackface or waving a confederate flag, I would not be surprised if they were just thinking, ‘oh this is a party and people are just dressing up like that,’” Campbell said.

From minstrel shows, a type of performance troupe caricaturing black performers that originated in the U.S. in the 1830s and 40s, in which white performers used burnt cork and shoe polish to darken their faces, spawned blackface and the normalization of racist portrayals of black Americans, according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“Blackface and the codifying of blackness — language, movement, deportment and character — as caricature persists through mass media and in public performances today,” according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

From page 84 of the 1950 edition of the Yucca, UNT’s yearbook which printed under that name until 1974, members of the Zeta Pi Gamma sorority stand in blackface at the Zeta “Harlem House.” Volume 43 of the Yucca.

“I am under the impression that they shouldn’t have allowed that [racist images] in the first place,” English junior Dre Guthrie said. “And I don’t think that was a very considerate thing to do for anyone.”

Though Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954, it was not until the spring of 1956 that UNT admitted its first black student, Irma E.L. Sephas. There were incidents of cross burning and racial slurs chalked on sidewalks in response to desegregation and black students could not live on campus initially, according to the North Texan.

“There needs to be accountability,” Campbell said. “But what does that mean? It’s no longer acceptable or excusable to say well, ‘they were just a product of their time.’”

Campbell compared the 1950s and 60s to the 1920s, when Confederate monuments were being built. During that time, black Americans were beginning to experience more freedom, and those in opposition erected monuments as a form of resistance, he said.

Campbell said he believes that blackface and other racist displays were a result of the Civil Rights Movement happening at the time, and were used as “a scare tactic.” 

The issue of blackface and other racist imagery came to national attention when Virginia governor Ralph Northam apologized about his being in a racist photo of someone in blackface and someone in a Ku Klux Klan robe in his 1984 medical school yearbook.

A day after apologizing, however, Northam held a press conference in which he said he was not in the racist photo, but admitted he had darkened his face with shoe polish on a separate occasion – as part of a Michael Jackson costume for a dance contest.

Five days after Northam’s press conference, the Virginia attorney general admitted to wearing blackface for a party at the University of Virginia in 1980, as part of a costume of rapper Kurtis Blow.

“I’m glad it’s being pointed out,” Campbell said. “Because I don’t want [this] generation to look back and say, ‘oh, that’s just the way things were back then.’”

Beyond blackface, there were photos of students dressed in racist portrayals of Asians and Native Americans found in the yearbooks the Daily looked at.

One photo of students dressed in a racist portrayal of Asian Americans found in the 1960 Yucca on page 376 is accompanied by the caption, “DGS DRESS as Orientals in a campaign stunt for Homecoming Queen candidate Connie Hood.”

Education sophomore Sarah Alharbi said she was surprised that racist photos were found.

“I feel like UNT is very diverse and always has been so that kind of surprises me to see that [the Dailyfound that,” she said. “During that time period it wasn’t as surprising as we find it now, I guess.”

On accountability, Alharbi said the people in the racist photos “should know that that wasn’t right, but again, it was a long time ago.”

From page 135 of the 1952 edition of The Yucca captioned with “Bongo, Bongo, Bongo … Theta neophytes like it in the congo,” members of the Kappa Theta Pi sorority are shown in blackface. Volume 45 of the Yucca.

“Not saying that that’s acceptable,” Alharbi said. “But I don’t really know what you can do about it now since it was so long ago.”

Education freshman Moraya Pinon said she was not surprised there were racist portrayals of minorities found in the university yearbooks.

“It’s been going on forever,” Pinon said. “It will happen everywhere so I’m not surprised it happened here at school.”

UNT News Director Leigh Anne Gullett denounced the behavior of the students and said racism is not tolerated on campus anymore.

“As we know from our nation’s history, this kind of behavior in the 1950s was unfortunately somewhat common on college campuses across the nation,” Gullett wrote. “Because we study our history, face it and have learned from it, our university today would not tolerate such behavior. We as a community today view such things as utterly reprehensible and completely incongruent with our values. UNT is an institution that respects and accepts all individuals and expects our community members to value one another.”

Campbell said that with their yearbooks and the inclusion of racist imagery, UNT, among many other universities, played a part in the codifying of blackness.

“I understand when white people say, ‘oh it’s cultural, it’s heritage, we’re just preserving heritage,’” Campbell said. “But that’s a cop-out.”

Featured Image: From page 26 of the 1951 edition of The Yucca, UNT’s yearbook which printed under that name until 1974, students perform in blackface and stand with a Confederate flag in a campus-wide talent “extravaganza” presented by the Blue Key National Leadership Honorary. Volume 44 of the Yucca.

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Lizzy Spangler

Lizzy Spangler

Jasmine Robinson

Jasmine Robinson

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  1. Dave T
    Dave T March 28, 18:25

    I attended North Texas from Sep 1961 to May 1963 and from Sep 1967 to May 1970. When I arrived in 1961, there were no black students living in dorms. By 1968, there was a large protest meeting and marches around Dr King’s assassination. North Texas helped lead Texas to better behavior. Probably not soon enough, but certainly on the positive side.

    Reply to this comment
  2. JC
    JC March 29, 17:33

    We hear a lot about racism and blackface but never about white people applying for positions at the post office and being told “we have enough white applicants” which happened to me in the early eighties. Why do racism stories all center on black people. White people suffer from racism, too. As far as blackface goes, as a elementary student at Atwood McDonald in the early 70’s, I had black friends who parents dressed me in blackface for an Harlem globtrotters skit at school. I was the only white girl in the talent show skit and they helped me fit in. Is this racism?

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