Georgetown University’s archives are on the fifth floor of Lauinger Library, and its yearbooks have been digitized for anyone to delve into. These physical and digital records host old stories and photos of past Georgetown students, including images of blackface, racial slurs and other blatant symbols of bigotry.
In the past weeks, Georgetown’s administration reviewed the digital archives of Ye Domesday Booke, Georgetown’s yearbook, which stretch from 1901 to 2011. The search found photos that displayed prejudice, according to university spokesperson Matt Hill.
“Our review surfaced a number of individual photos that demonstrate sexism, racism and intolerance towards African Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans, along with a number of pictures that contained symbols’ of the Confederacy and Nazi party in the background,” Hill wrote in an email to The Hoya. “The sentiments contained in these photos have no place at our University.”
The Hoya also independently reviewed the yearbooks, finding images displaying five instances of blackface, two people dressed as Adolf Hitler giving Nazi salutes and eight people costumed in Native American headdresses in editions of Ye Domesday Booke stretching from 1938 to 1978. The review also examined theater archives and found eight playbills for blackface minstrel shows, the most recent held in 1931.
Other findings included two uses of the n-word, four textual references to college minstrel shows and about a dozen racist descriptions of international and Puerto Rican students in Ye Domesday Booke. Yearbook images showed students making caricatures of African tribal wear, a cartoon referencing the Ku Klux Klan and a student sitting in front of a Nazi flag. Cartoons in multiple yearbooks between 1922 and 1932 feature black caricatures.
Georgetown’s archives also featured an ad for a minstrel show and a play with a character described as “a colored servant” in 1930 — years before the university admitted its first black student in 1950.
The review follows a national conversation on blackface launched by the discovery of a blackface photo on Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D-Va.) medical school yearbook page. The findings from Georgetown’s archives have raised questions among students and faculty about the legacy of racism at the university. Several students feel that racist imagery and text from Georgetown’s past have relevance for current efforts to build inclusivity and diversity.
Colleges and student newspapers in the Washington, D.C. area have delved into
their historical records after the revelation of a blackface photo on Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page. A review of The George Washington University’s yearbook discovered 14 instances of blackface and three photos of people wearing KKK hoods ranging from 1910 to 1977. At American University, officials found 15 photos “of concern,” including at least four images of blackface from the mid-1950s to 1963.
The findings in Georgetown’s yearbooks follow efforts to reconcile the university’s historic involvement with slavery and the sale of the GU272, 272 slaves who were sold by the Maryland Jesuits in 1838 to financially sustain Georgetown. The Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation published its final report and dissolved in June 2016.
The yearbook findings represent a broader pattern of social discrimination, according to Mélisande Short-Colomb (COL ’21), a member of the GU272 Advocacy Team and a descendant of the 272.
“This is a society of consistent racially discriminatory elements rooted, grounded and grown fundamentally, economically, incorporated and curated into who we are as a people, with a set of values, clouded by reality,” Short-Colomb wrote in an email to The Hoya.
On Feb. 8, Ari Goldstein (COL ’18), who studied Georgetown’s history as an undergraduate student, revealed photos of students in blackface from a 1943 Georgetown yearbook on Twitter. The photos appear in a section about a minstrel show put on by Georgetown theater club Mask and Bauble, according to the yearbook.
Mask and Bauble’s current executive board tweeted out a statement Feb. 17 responding to the images.
“We expect that these photos are as deeply troubling to our community as they have been to us, and we want to stress that they in no way reflect our values or who we are as a community today,” they wrote. “We condemn the racism in these photos as we have no tolerance for bigotry.”
In a recent review of the archives, the Georgetown Voice found instances of blackface as recently as 1978 and instances of white students wearing Native American costumes in the yearbook archives.
One 1943 photo shows three white students gathered around a campfire in headdresses and tasseled and patterned clothes, a teepee behind them, on Gaston Hall’s stage. Gaston Hall also hosted a barbershop quartet contest with a blackface quartet featured in a 1951 yearbook. Another image of freshmen wearing war paint, holding a “Zulu Chief” sign, appears in the 1953 yearbook.
A Culture of Minstrelsy
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, blackface commonly appeared in Georgetown
theater productions. Blackface minstrel shows were common and well-attended on campus after the Civil War, according to Marcus Lustig (COL ’19), who is writing his history thesis on blackface minstrelsy at Georgetown.
“Blackface minstrelsy was central to collegiate life at Georgetown,” Lustig said in an interview with The Hoya. “It happened at the most important moments of the year, it was not just accepted by university officials but kind of popular and important to the entire community.”
To investigate Georgetown’s history of blackface, Lustig turned to the theater archives housed in the Booth Family Center for Special Collections in Lauinger Library.
Blackface minstrel shows were put on at Georgetown for 89 years, according to Lustig. The earliest evidence he found was from December 1861 and the latest from spring 1950. Lustig argued that blackface is connected to anxieties about the white identity, especially for Catholic Americans.
“One of the things that theorists think is going on when people put on the blackface is that it’s going to assure white identity by contrast,” Lustig said. “There was for a long time a lot of anxiety about the place of Catholic Americans in America.”
Short-Colomb highlighted the intergenerational and social implications of blackface.
“Black-facing for entertainment is the perverse pleasure white people generationally grant one another, passed on academically, theatrically, and culturally,” Short-Colomb wrote.
A Lasting Legacy
Until 1930, Ye Domesday Booke included short descriptive entries alongside photos for each member of the senior class. The Hoya found 12 racist and patronizing entries for Chinese, Japanese and Puerto Rican students.
One entry from 1911 describes a student from Puerto Rican as “our Little Brown Brother.” Another from 1913 describes a Filipino student as “our tanned little brother from the far east.” In 1923, a Chinese student was given the nickname “Chino.”
Karissa Prayogo (SFS ’20), the president of Georgetown’s International Student Association, noted the similarity between these types of comments and attitudes toward international students today.
“I do think that the sentiments are similar to attitudes today in that those who make these racially tinged or insensitive comments often seem unaware of how demeaning their comments can be, or do not seem to have any malign intent,” Prayogo wrote in an email to The Hoya.
Most of the entries with racist comments were directed at Asian students, which Prayogo attributed to a wider cultural gap between American and Asian students compared to European students.
“Coming from a predominantly white and western-centric school, I find sometimes that many Americans are more interested or more comfortable with European students over Asian students, perhaps due to the increased cultural gap,” Prayogo wrote.
Prayogo acknowledged that this racist history is not unique to Georgetown, but said the university still must examine how racism has influenced the university.
“While I recognize that the university is working to build on a more comprehensive set of resources for the university’s diverse population, it is difficult to deny that most of the institutions and resources originally built to serve a very specific demographic (of white, american students),” Prayogo wrote. “By acknowledging this past legacy of racism and discrimination, the university can work to correct these biases and be more inclusive of everyone.”
Students have long pushed for the university to address its past of racism and slavery, beginning with the push to recognize the sale of 272 slaves in 1838.
Among other actions, Georgetown renamed Freedom Hall as Isaac Hawkins Hall in April 2017 in honor of the first enslaved person recorded in 1838 and promised to give descendants of the GU272 the same admissions preference as Georgetown legacy students.
A conversation on blackface is necessary to understand the historical legacy of racism at Georgetown and in the United States more broadly, according to Adam Rothman, a history professor and the principal curator for the Georgetown Slavery Archive.
“Blackface was the cultural reflection of the long exclusion of black people from admission to Georgetown as students and from positions of power and influence at the school,” Rothman wrote in an email to The Hoya. “It is part of our school’s—and our country’s—history and should be studied, discussed, and learned from.”
Derringer Thomas says
Oh no! Whatever will we do! Historical photos that do not meet today’s standards of political correctness!
Most of the things described above are legitimately wrong, but seriously what do we do?
So long as this investigation stops with simply documenting the past, I don’t really have a problem with it. It’s when people start trying to fix the past that issues arise.