“I hope that every American, regardless of where he lives, will stop and examine his conscience about this and other related incidents. This nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”
President John F. Kennedy, June 11th, 1963
The story regarding black-face across college campuses has exploded in recent weeks. As a result of Governor Northam’s infamous scandal regarding his medical school yearbook from 1984, which donned an image of an individual in black-face and another wearing a klan-like hood. Universities across the nation have taken to a revisiting of their own histories, permanently captured within yearbooks and images. Similar controversies have been unearthed at campuses across the nation.
Academic institutions in the south are inherently tied to the policies and societal implications that were prevalent in the region in which they were located. The south holds a history that should not be permitted to be forgotten. With that, Wake Forest University, sadly, is no different. It is tied to tragedy.
Wake Forest University, among other peer regional schools such as UNC and Elon, have found similar racist imagery within their yearbooks dating back as recent as 1979.
The imagery itself is frightening, more so because it is not a distant past that we think of when we learn of racism. These images show places that are very much alive. They occur in the midst of the same institutions that we walk in every-day. They are amidst fraternities that many owe fellowship and brotherhood to. They represent yesteryear on our campus, and tell a story, of a world not far removed from our own.
It is far easier to imagine attending college in the late 70s than later in time, when in the frameworks of our memory racism was rampant. These images within yearbooks tell us all as a reminder that this is a myth, for these images were more recent than what our minds jump to when we think of this dark time in American history.
Even then, the burden of suffering cannot simply be let into the past and forgotten. These images tell a story that is very much alive and cannot be forgotten. They are a reminder of the tragedy, that needs to not be shunned and hidden – but accepted as history. History that promotes growth and understanding as a society, as a university, and as a people. For if we forget these stories, we are desecrating the struggle towards the advancement of freedom and equality.
In the 1972 edition of the Howler Wake Forest yearbook, a billboard stands ominously on the side of U.S 70 in Johnston County with a member of the KKK riding a horse holding a burning cross, the caption, “This is Klan Country. Love It or Leave It. Help Fight Communism & Integration. KKK Welcome to Smithfield.” The billboard stood in Johnston County, North Carolina until 1977.
Other images of black-face and klan-hoods are in other editions of the Howler yearbook, including the 1976 edition, the 1977 edition, and the 1979 edition.
Racism had no place then and it continues to have no place today. Wake Forest University is an institution of diverse people, diversity in regard to race, culture, religions, and thought. As an institution, this hurts. We are the university that upholds the values of Pro Humanitate – for humanity, over all else. A university that is welcoming and an institution renowned for its transformation of individuals into people willing to make a dent in the universe.
This hurts because these images are ghosts of a different time, yet not as distant as we would like – they are ones that walk the same halls, hear the same ringing sounds of Wait Chapel, and preach the same message of Pro Humanitate. These images do not represent our values, our beliefs, and are ones that promote shame among the corridors of our campus.
Some will say that these images were in the past. That these individuals are past memoirs of a time we can no longer change. But as a community there is one thing that needs to be done. Remember our history. These images bring about a reminder of a dark time in American history – of people that were oppressed for something that they could not change. A race that we’re born into should not then and should not now define our fates and fortune. The color of your skin should not define your opportunity or lead to persecution and violence. These ideas are contrary to the very of notion of freedom and liberty.
We must learn this history, not letting these moments fade into forgettable history. We must condemn hatred and seek to build unity. These images are of individuals that were in our shoes now – though several years before. We uphold a high responsibility to treat everyone with respect and condemn these instances of hatred. These images take us to a time in our history that we will never be proud of – but we must not hide.
For if we hide behind the notion that these things were simply in the past and should not be remembered – we are covering up the tragedy and letting the names of victims of racial oppression be forgotten. Their names and stories should never be forgotten – for if they are we will forget the long fight over equality and the institution of true American values: That all men are created equal.
We cannot permit these tragedies to be forgotten.
Editor’s Note: This article previously asserted, “Wake Forest University should not pretend that these images do not exist.” However, Wake Forest published a statement ahead of all other news stories breaking regarding the blackface in previous yearbooks found here: Wake Forest has made a statement regarding this scandal which you can find here: https://news.wfu.edu/