The editor of the 1979 UNC yearbook fully expected outrage over a photo of Chapel Hill fraternity members dressed in Klan-style robes pretending to lynch a white student wearing blackface, she said Friday.
She just didn’t think it would take 40 years.
“It was merely to show the truth,” said Chrisann Ohler, who led the Yackety Yack yearbook in 1979 and talked with the staff at the time about whether to publish the photo and another of two students in blackface sharing a hug and a kiss.
“It was purely to make it public that that was what was going on at those parties, so there could be a public outcry and something could be done about it.”
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People have been cracking open old college yearbooks from across the nation recently, sometimes discovering images that are controversial in the current political climate if not the one in which they first appeared.
Many have called for Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, to resign over a photograph on his page in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook. The photo shows a person in blackface and one in a Ku Klux Klan-style robe. Northam has said he’s not in the photo, but he has acknowledged that he once shoe-polished his face and went to a party pretending to be Michael Jackson.
The 1979 UNC photos went viral after being posted Wednesday by Colin Campbell, editor of the N.C. Insider, a News & Observer publication, on his personal Twitter page.
The photos originally ran on the Yackety Yack’s two-page spread for the UNC chapter of the Chi Phi fraternity. The fraternity’s national organization and UNC administration have denounced the behavior and sentiments displayed in the photos.
Ohler, who now owns a veterinary practice in California, said she expected leaders and students across campus to condemn the behavior at the time. But that did not happen, she said.
‘As honest as we could’
Ohler said she entered UNC as a freshman in 1976, coming from Swannanoa, just east of Asheville. She grew up on the campus of Warren Wilson College, where her father, a Presbyterian minister and former civil rights activist, taught. At the time, she said, about a fourth of Warren Wilson’s student body was made up of international students, and she grew up with an appreciation of different cultures.
Once at UNC, Ohler said she went to work on the yearbook staff as a freshman and worked for the publication all the way through school. The year before she became editor, she said, the Yackety Yack took a rare look beyond the campus with “a photo essay on the poor parts of the state. It was a real photojournalism event, and I think that broke the mold for yearbooks. It gave us a little more courage to show, in addition to all the pretty things, the nitty gritty and the ugly.
“It all makes up the whole,” Ohler said. “And if you show one side without the other, it’s not very real. We tried to be as honest as we could.”
That included sections in the 1979 yearbook on student protests against the construction of the Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant in neighboring Wake County, which began in 1978. It also featured a section on UNC’s Black Student Movement and a protest by 200 students that year against the university’s decision to deny tenure to Sonja Stone, then director of the Afro-American Studies Curriculum.
And the yearbook devoted several pages to the debate over whether UNC should use affirmative action to raise black student enrollment and to attract black faculty.
So when a yearbook photographer came back from shooting photos at a Chi Phi party with the lynching and blackface images, Ohler said, “None of us could believe it. None of us could believe it was happening in that day and age.
“The thing is, the campus was very integrated at the time, and that’s why the photo was so alarming: because this was happening behind closed doors. Nobody really knew about it.
“That’s why we published it,” she said. “Because people needed to know about it and there was no longer a place on campus for that kind of thing. I think if we had swept it under the rug it would have been irresponsible.”
‘Appalled for the wrong reasons’
Ohler said she and other staffers, including black students, talked about whether to run the photos. The decision was theirs to make, she said. The Yack was the product of nearly 28,000 hours of student labor and its content did not need the approval of any UNC faculty. Campus groups also did not get to choose the photos that would represent them.
When the yearbook came out, Ohler said, she and others were sure that students across campus would call out the fraternity’s behavior. She thought the Chi Phi chapter might be suspended, or that its students would be otherwise reprimanded.
“People were appalled, but they were appalled for the wrong reasons,” Ohler said. “They were angry that it was published, and we were angry that it was happening. That was the frustration.”
Ohler said that at the time, many who saw the photo believed its inclusion in the yearbook meant the staff endorsed the racist actions.
“I don’t want anyone ever thinking we published that to condone that behavior,” Ohler said. “That’s exactly the opposite of what the intent was.”
Brad Kutrow, who worked for editorial page of the Daily Tar Heel’ student newspaper at the time, got the intent of Ohler and her staff. He decided the student newspaper should speak out about the photos.
He wrote an editorial calling the photos appalling. “Those photographs crystallized the racism that permeates this University in its most blatant and disturbing form,” Kutrow wrote then.
He also compared them to blackface pictures he had found in the 1955 Yackety Yack, proving how little progress had been made.
Kutrow himself was a member of another fraternity, Chi Psi, which had a few black members.
“Maybe I was naive, I had never seen anything like that. I had never been at a a party like that,” he said in an interview. “I was horrified and stunned by those images.”
He knew immediately that he had to write about it because it was “not only wrong viscerally but antithetical to the values of the university as I understood them,” he said.
‘That was not welcome’
Kutrow, now a lawyer in Charlotte who has done legal work for the News & Observer, doesn’t recall that the editorial prompted much reaction. But he was aware that his piece was going to be unwelcome to many in the white Greek fraternity system — a system that he was a member of.
“As somebody who was part of the mainstream culture at UNC, I wanted to express the view that that was not welcome, that was not appropriate, that was something we really needed to call out,” he said.
The Yackety Yack image went viral in recent days, along with those in other college yearbooks, in the aftermath of the blackface scandal among Virginia politicians.
Nicka Smith, a professional genealogist in Tennessee, blogged about what she found when she searched Ancestry’s online yearbook respository. She discovered more than 200 instances of racial slurs and blackface images in yearbooks from all across the nation.
“I was shocked,” she said in an interview. “It was like, are you kidding me?”
It wasn’t a Southern thing.
“This whole idea and notion that this is isolated to one particular area of the country — no. What my little non-scientific experiment showed was that’s not the case at all,” she said. “This whole thought process that Virginia has to own this — no. This is a national problem.”
Kutrow said he hoped that people reacting to the photo now might reflect on their behavior in the past compared to “whatever age they are now and say, ‘Why was I doing things like that?’ or ‘Why did I think other people doing things like that was an acceptable way to act?’ ‘Did I think about how it might affect other people?’”
Ohler said she was surprised to learn that the photos had resurfaced now. Asked if she had any regrets about publishing them, she said yes, because their use had upset so many black classmates, including friends of hers.
“But I don’t think we could have known what the reaction would be without publishing it,” she said. “And then, no one would know that that behavior was still going on in 1979. Most people don’t want to believe it.
“And if you don’t talk about it, it never changes,” she said. “That was exactly why we threw it out there in the open: to stimulate a conversation. Unfortunately, it was the wrong conversation. But maybe now that conversation can be had.
“I didn’t think I was that much ahead of my time.”