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Committee researches archives for blackface

by brockportnews
Tue, Mar 5th 2019 10:00 pm

The issue of blackface is one that has plagued the United States for decades. Since the early 1820’s, the use of blackface has ignited controversial conversations across the country. The College at Brockport has recently taken the initiative to search all prior yearbooks and student newspapers to see if there are any photographs of blackface or other racially charged material.

Blackface is when someone who is not African American paints their face dark and proceeds to act in a way that is deemed racially inferior. Recently, the public has seen the issue of blackface surface in not only Gucci’s new turtleneck sweater, but in the 1974 medical yearbook of Virginia governor Ralph Northam. 

Inspired by the Northam case, reporters from Democrat and Chronicle set out to search the yearbooks of all the colleges located in Western New York. According to a message from President Heidi Macpherson, “The report examined yearbooks from 1975-1985 at local colleges, including The College at Brockport. While the Democrat and Chronicle tells us that its reporters did not find anything ‘overtly offensive’ from this era in Brockport’s publications, it did report on offensive images in other schools’ yearbooks.” 

Macpherson went on to express her disappointment in the discoveries. The yearbook is a place to store all the memories students make during their time at college. 

“Like the rest of society, colleges and universities have moments in their histories that we are not proud of — The College at Brockport is no exception,” Macpherson wrote.

Macpherson felt the need to address any ugly things in our past yearbooks and The Stylus, which led to her assembling a committee to look into these issues. 

 “I will ask this group to inform me of any content that does not reflect our values of equity, diversity and inclusion,” Macpherson wrote. “From there, we will decide how our community can best learn and grow from the actions and misperceptions of our past.”

 Director of Communications John Follaco wrote in an email that the members of the committee were either chosen by the president or volunteered on their own. There are representatives from multiple departments, such as the diversity office, communications and The Stylus’ staff. 

“The committee is in fact-finding mode right now.” Follaco said.  “We’re seeking to identify content that may exist that does not reflect the College’s values of equity, diversity and inclusion.” 

Once the committee identifies any content they deem important, they will discuss next steps, and make recommendations to President Macpherson. While all options are on the table, there is a strong sense among the group to find a way for our campus community to learn from this period of our history. 

College Archivist and Special Collections Librarian Charlie Cowling, found a few cases of “Minstrel Shows” on the college’s campus. These shows were a form of old fashion entertainment, with the performers often being in blackface and mimicking the stereotypical black person. An issue of The Stylus, dating back to May 26, 1950, showed that there were a minstrel shows that took place. 

According to Cowling, the President’s goal is to address the college’s flaws, analyze and see how we can learn from it.

“We don’t want to pretend it didn’t happen,” Cowling said. “We will not censor the situation.”

As an initial measure, Cowling has put up a statement on some of the archival web pages to warn viewers of the situation. He spoke on these type of shows being widespread around those eras. While the situation is extreme in this society, back in the 20th century, ‘everyone was doing it.’ 

“Was there racism? Yes,” Cowling said. “The burdens of history, the realities of the past, are heavy at times and I am glad to be working with a group of faculty and students so that we may establish a response to these things that reflects our values here of inclusiveness and diversity, while acknowledging our past.”

Crowling points to Brockport’s history of inclusivity despite it not being popular among other schools in the past. 

“Brockport has a very long history of offering opportunities to people of color and women, in an era when that was not common practice, at many private colleges for example,” Cowling said. “One hopes that that admirable history will not be lost sight of.” 

The committee is continuing to go through the records. At this time, it is not determined what the committee will do with the information.