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Universities Scour Yearbooks After Northam


It's been two weeks since the governor of Virginia held an extraordinary press conference to take questions about a racist photo featured on his page in his medical school yearbook. The controversy caused a furor Virginia, and it's prompted universities across the country to begin to examine their old yearbooks in search for offensive images. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: There've been all sorts of yearbook controversies over the years - often related to high schools. Sometimes, there's outrage over inappropriate quotes or coded messages. It was a photo in a graduate yearbook, though, that caused Virginia's political explosion - a photo of a person in blackface and another in KKK robes on Governor Ralph Northam's yearbook page.


CORLEY: Out on the Capitol steps in Richmond, a group of civic leaders said they supported Northam's decision not to resign. Former Richmond City Councilman Chuck Richardson says while he definitely doesn't condone them, such photos used to be pervasive in the past.

CHUCK RICHARDSON: Look at all the yearbooks.

CORLEY: And some universities are or have already been doing just that - combing through all of their yearbooks. The Citadel and College of William and Mary in Virginia, Elon University in North Carolina and Texas A&M are a few of them. Fanta Aw, vice president of campus life at American University in Washington, D.C., says that school's yearbook, the Talon, was published from 1926 to 2009.

FANTA AW: What we found from the review were about 15 photos and cartoons and drawings.

CORLEY: Photos of students in blackface as well as racist images of Native Americans and Asian-Americans. Aw says a campus-wide memo sent out acknowledged what was found and emphasized the need for continuing education.

AW: In situations like this, you have those who are well-versed on the issues and understand exactly the significance of this. And then you have a whole host of folks who are perplexed by it. And we want to make sure that people really understand what is the significance of this and why should you care.

CORLEY: At Wake Forest University in North Carolina, Jose Villalba, the school's chief diversity officer, says an audit of the school's yearbook, The Howler, actually began as part of a larger effort chronicling school history.

JOSE VILLALBA: Well, we found a lot of pictures and some commentary that was offensive.

CORLEY: Blackface, racial remarks and caricatures of lynchings in yearbooks from the 1920s through the '70s. Villalba says the university knew it needed to do better and, decades ago, opened an office of minority affairs, now called the Intercultural Center.

VILLALBA: It's not a way of patting ourselves on the back. But it's a way of letting folks know that because we've been reflecting on these issues for a long, long time and trying to repair and do remedy by those issues, that's how we continue to have these dialogues.

CORLEY: These days, there are organizations that offer students and advisors yearbook help. Edmund Sullivan is the executive director of the Columbia Scholastic Press Association at Columbia University. It evaluates and rates yearbooks. He says today, students take a more journalistic approach when it comes to producing yearbooks as opposed to treating it like a scrapbook, which leaves everything open to question.

EDMUND SULLIVAN: The Northam page, for example, just was really a few snapshots under the person's name. There's no captions under the photos. There's no story or anything to try to place any context with what's on the page.

CORLEY: Sarah Nichols is president of the Journalism Education Association. That group works directly with student editors of yearbooks. She says even though controversies still flare up, today students pay much more attention to ethics and standards because of the impact the yearbooks can have.

SARAH NICHOLS: But really seeing these old yearbooks, it just illustrates what we in the scholastic journalism community have known all along, which is that yearbooks are forever.

CORLEY: As the controversy over the Virginia governor's medical school yearbook proves. Cheryl Corley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.