Examination of Elon yearbooks finds offensive photos and racial caricatures

University staff have looked back through yearbooks from throughout Elon’s history in the wake of multiple reports around the country of offensive photos portraying white students in blackface or dressed as Ku Klux Klan members.

At the request of Elon President Connie Ledoux Book, staff of Belk Library and the University Archives have examined the university’s collection of student-produced Phi Psi Cli yearbooks dating back to 1913 and found two photographs from the 1950s featuring white students who had painted their faces in what could be an instance of wearing blackface. Their examination also found many photos featuring students posing with the Confederate flag. No instances of students in Ku Klux Klan costumes were found.

This close look at Elon yearbooks follows numerous recent news reports about college and university yearbooks containing photos in which white students appeared in blackface and dressed as members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Library and Archives staff found two photos from the 1950s in which male students painted their faces. It is unclear in either instance what the specific reason was for painting their faces, or if the students were appearing in blackface. One photo features students with their faces painted black, cartoon faces on their bodies and stripes on their arms. There is no caption to this photo or other information about what it depicts. Another photo contains the caption “Clowning Around.”

Since the 1960s there were also depictions of cultural appropriation, mostly focused on Native Americans, related to photos of talent/variety shows and Elon sports teams competing against schools with “Indian” mascots.

Additionally, they found that yearbooks from 1916 through the early 1940s contain highly objectionable illustrations, crude cartoons and some blackface “minstrel” shows, including the 1942 yearbook, which featured the theme of “In the Land of Cotton,” with artwork depicting idealized images of black life in the 19th century rural South.

“I find it painful to look at these hurtful racial stereotypes and consider the experience of our African American and Native American employees, and later students, during these periods of Elon’s past,” said President Book. “Taking an honest and courageous look at our history will strengthen our understanding of not only our past, but of who we are today and who we want to be in the future. These visuals strengthen our resolve and our commitment to equality — at Elon and beyond.”

Elon’s yearbooks from 1913 to the present are available online through DigitalNC, a project of the state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, the UNC-Chapel Hill University Library and the North Carolina Digital Heritage Center. Elon is considering adding language on the yearbook website to make clear that offensive images are not condoned by the university.

Joan Ruelle, dean of the Carol Grotnes Belk Library, said the yearbooks are valuable as historical documents that serve to help us better understand Elon’s history and that of the broader community. From the standpoint of professional standards for librarians and archivists, it would be unethical to remove or redact these images from the historical record, offensive though they might be, Ruelle said.

“I want to be clear that preserving this part of our history in no way means that we condone prejudices, racial stereotypes and offensive depictions of cultures,” Ruelle said.  

Elon’s examination of the yearbooks comes as the university undertakes a broader effort to more clearly understand its history and its collective identity. The Committee on Elon History and Memory was launched in 2018 to revisit the stories that Elon tells about itself and examine its institutional history in a transparent, participatory and intellectually rigorous manner.

Charles Irons, chair of the committee, addressed the intersection between the photos in the yearbook and ongoing efforts to make Elon a more equitable and welcoming community. “If there is a possible redemptive storyline in the barrage of shocking images we have seen this week—some from the very recent past—it is that they may strengthen the community’s resolve to address enduring patterns of anti-black racism and other forms of discrimination.”

The 12-member committee includes faculty, staff and students and seeks to engage the broader community in conversations about the past, uncover “hidden stories” about the university and tell a more democratic and rigorous version of its history. The committee will submit a report to the provost after two years of work that will include guidance for how the work can continue. Those interested in communicating with the committee can send an email to commemoration@elon.edu.

Elon has also joined Universities Studying Slavery, a collaboration among 49 member institutions to address historical and contemporary issues dealing with race and inequality in higher education, as well as the legacy of slavery in modern American society. Other member institutions from North Carolina are the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Wake Forest University, Davidson College and Guilford College.