March 21, 2019

Racist images found in old Webster yearbooks

Former students covered their faces in shoe polish to create a mocking stereotype.

Students of Loretto and Webster College wore blackface in pictures dating from 1932 to 1948. Sister Annie Stevens of the Sisters of Loretto said blackface was part of the culture at those times. Students who wore blackface usually did so for musicals or skits.

Musicians perform the song “Sugar Blues” in a 1948 Mardis Gras celebration.

Stevens said she’s glad the world’s evolved from wearing blackface like the students did at Loretto College.   

“I’m glad we’ve evolved from the attitudes that you could just pretend you’re someone else. That’s not right,” Stevens said.

The Sisters of Loretto founded Loretto College in 1915. The school then changed its name to Webster College in 1925, then to Webster University in 1983.

Change to be done

Society still has far to evolve in terms of racial equality according to black history expert Lois D. Conley. Conley founded and works as the chief executive of The Griot Museum of Black History.

Conley said although blackface is less common, racial prejudice is still apparent.  

“Folks are still doing many of the same things they’ve always done. Racism is still alive and well,” Conley said. “Even though there have been some individual accomplishments, as a whole, black folks are still struggling and considered less than white folks.”

Blackface began in the 1800s for white actors to portray black characters. Actors covered their faces with black grease paint or shoe polish to create big lips and exaggerated features, Conley said.

Seniors Marie Rosenthal, Patricia Price, Rose Sacchi and Marie Rodman display the confederate flag in 1953.

Actors who wore blackface created mocking portrayals that dehumanized and demeaned African Americans according to Conley.

Freshman Larry Hearn said that racism now exists in less obvious ways than blackface.

“I feel like racism now is more indirect than it was back in the day,” Hearn said. “Now it’s like so much has happened since the civil rights movement, you’ve got people who are silently racist.”

Hearn said he sometimes felt invisible. People ignored him when he went to a predominantly white church with some friends, Hearn said.

Hearn said Webster seems to welcome people of different colors.  

“For the most part, Webster is pretty accepting of people of different ethnicities,” Hearn said. I think the diversity isn’t really diverse. I see a lot more white students than I see black, but the professors and the students. They’re very inclusive.”

Webster’s Action

Webster’s president, provost and chief diversity officer emailed a message to the Webster University community on Feb. 13.

Webster preserves the photos for archival purposes, according to a separate statement the university issued on both its archival and diversity and inclusion page.

“The photos and language in the materials published decades ago are reflective of the values and standards deemed acceptable at the time,” the statement read. “Today, many of us will find this content offensive and unacceptable.”

According to Patrick Giblin, Webster’s director of public relations, Webster archivists reviewed the school’s historic publications such as old yearbooks and newspapers in light of recent events involving blackface.

A medical school yearbook pictured Virginia’s governor Ralph Northam in a racist photo. Virginia’s Attorney General Mark Herring admitted he once wore brown makeup to a party.

According to Conley, skin color automatically signals a difference for some people. She said the world needs to understand people are people.  

“We’re all human beings, whether we are black skinned, dark skinned or light skinned” Conley said. “Until we accept each other as that, we will never get over our issues of differences.”

 

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