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Decades-old CU Boulder Yearbook Photos Show Students in Blackface and Nazi Garb

February 15, 2019
This photo of students in blackface appeared on page 265 of the 1967 University of Colorado Boulder yearbook.

Several University of Colorado yearbooks from the 1960s reviewed by the Denver Post show photos of students in blackface and wearing Nazi garb.

One photo from 1967 shows a group of students at a fraternity “shipwreck party” with their bodies and faces painted black. In the 1968 yearbook, a photo depicts a smiling male student wearing Nazi symbols, including swastikas, while two other students in the photo sport blackface. In another picture from 1969, a group of students pose in a dormitory, with one grinning while holding up a Nazi flag.

“We condemn the racist and derogatory images published in yearbooks from the 1960s,” CU spokeswoman Melanie Parra said in a statement. “It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now. The behaviors depicted in the images do not represent the inclusive community we foster today at the University of Colorado Boulder.

“The behavior depicted in the photos is shameful.”

This period was marked by allegations of racism on the Boulder campus. In the spring of 1968, CU’s black athletes charged the athletic department with discrimination , citing intolerance regarding interracial dating, the absence of black coaches and discrimination in recruiting and housing.

More recently, the university in 2011 drafted a resolution after some people voiced concerns about blackface being used at CU football games and Halloween parties .

The Post also uncovered photos in decades-old Arapahoe High School yearbooks showing students wearing hoods that resemble those of the Ku Klux Klan — the latest revelation in a national conversation on racism that has communities across the country confronting offensive images in a new light.

Yearbooks from the Littleton high school from 1978, 1979 and 1980 show students in football jerseys wearing both light- and dark-colored hoods with pointed tops and holes cut out around the eyes.

Littleton Public Schools denounced the images as “abhorrent and offensive,” while an expert who has researched racism in old yearbooks said this is a textbook example of white power and privilege — even if the students were not part of a hate group.

“I’m quite frankly pretty shocked that that kind of racist symbolism would have appeared in a yearbook in Colorado as recently as that,” said Rosemary Lytle, president of the NAACP’s State Conference for Colorado, Montana and Wyoming.

The resurfacing of these photos from Arapahoe High comes two weeks after a firestorm erupted in Virginia over a photograph on Gov. Ralph Northam’s page in his 1984 medical school yearbook showing one person in blackface and another wearing KKK robes.

The Democratic governor first admitted to being in the photograph — though he didn’t say which person he was — then recanted a day later at a press conference in which he volunteered that he had worn blackface around the same time as part of a Michael Jackson dance contest.

A few days later, Virginia’s attorney general, Mark Herring, admitted he wore blackface at a party in college.

The Virginia yearbook scandal and others that have since followed have forced a host of schools, and their former students, to grapple with a complicated question: What do these photos mean in the current era?

Littleton Public Schools condemned the old images.

“Arapahoe High School and Littleton Public Schools are saddened to see the proud tradition of Arapahoe High School portrayed in this way in yearbooks dating back 40 years,” Diane Leiker, the district’s spokeswoman, said in a statement. “The behavior shown in the photos was abhorrent and offensive. It was wrong then, and it is wrong today.”

An Arapahoe High graduate sent one of the images of hooded students from the 1980 yearbook to The Denver Post. The newspaper then found five other photos in Arapahoe High yearbooks between 1978 and 1980.

Only one of the images of hooded students carried a caption identifying who was in the photos. The Denver Post is not identifying those students since none of them are public figures.

The Post also reviewed yearbooks from several other Denver-area high schools and colleges from that same era, but did not turn up similar images. Additionally, the Camera examined numerous CU yearbooks spanning the mid-’60s to the mid-’70s, and found nothing that was racially insensitive.

The ‘Phantom Five’

The Arapahoe High School students in the hoods were known as the “Phantom Five,” according to the yearbooks. Former Arapahoe High students remember the group as pranksters who used to steal signs from rival Cherry Creek High School before their annual football game to drum up spirit. This crew, former students said, was certainly not a hate group.

The Denver Post reached two of the “Phantom Five” members identified by the yearbook, but they declined to comment.

“They’re the ones who pulled all the pranks,” said Galen Stephens, a 1980 Arapahoe High graduate. “They would go up on the roof of the cafeteria and moon everybody. They would streak at football games.”

And the headware?

“I have no memories of any hoods,” Stephens said.

Dan, a 1979 graduate who spoke to The Post about the photos but declined to give his last name, said this was not something on anyone’s radar back then. “Nobody cared,” he said. “It was like, ‘Big deal.’ ”

For Jack Jackson, a 1980 Arapahoe High graduate, the hooded figures represent a dark time.

“We were the beneficiaries of white privilege,” he said via email. “When you are born into a white box, often the only color you see is white. Without some outside intervention, that perspective never comes into question.”

Jackson questioned how the faculty at the school didn’t notice, or didn’t take action, regarding this choice of garb.

“Students must be led by example, both in the school and at home,” he wrote. “In this case, there are some adults at Arapahoe who should be called upon to justify why they allowed this to continue.”

While former students insisted there was no ill-intent behind the costumes, this type of imagery has deep roots in American history, said Kirt von Daacke, an assistant dean and history professor at the University of Virginia. Von Daacke co-chairs commissions on slavery and the age of segregation, and has been studying yearbooks going back decades as part of his research.

“That’s always how this is described,” von Daacke said. “The white response to this is always, ‘We didn’t intend to be racist.’ It’s not about intent; it’s the action ... It’s always been about dehumanization and white power.”

White privilege, von Daacke said, “gives white people the license not to think about (the action). That’s built into the program.”

Whether the students meant to evoke this imagery or not, Lytle said, there’s no mistaking what they looked like.

“I don’t know any other symbol that is as clear as a hood worn over the head with the eyes cut out,” she said. “It’s probably the most identifiable symbol of hatred that exists in this country.”

Blackface aand Klan robes

The pictures from Arapahoe High School are just a few examples of decades-old yearbook photos resurfacing across the country — now seen in a very different light.

A Pueblo doctor appeared in blackface in the same 1984 medical-school yearbook as Northam.

At the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, a photo from a 1979 yearbook shows two fraternity members dressed up in full KKK outfits, holding a noose around the neck of a smiling student in blackface.

Blackface photos were found in old University of Maryland yearbooks .

And two Baton Rogue, La., police officers in 1993 posed for a yearbook photo in blackface as part of an undercover operation.

Going back nearly a century, Arvada High School acknowledges its own sordid connection to the Klan on its website. In the 1920s, the town marshall, the school stated, attempted to recruit members of the senior class for the KKK. The Klan is even featured prominently on the activities page of the school’s 1924 yearbook.

Von Daacke has focused his research primarily on the University of Virginia and surrounding schools, but has seen images of blackface and Klan robes in old yearbooks and documents from every region of the country.

“We know it’s particularly acute in the South,” he said, “but it’s a national problem.”

This difficult topic, brought to the forefront by the Northam scandal, is an opportunity to spark important conversation, von Daacke said.

“It doesn’t matter where you’re from,” he said. “We’re still fighting the Civil War in some ways. We’ve not had a full reckoning or coming to terms with these issues.

“We should talk about this.”