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La Tech blackface photo revelation latest in long history of questionable practice

By Raven LeDay
On February 21, 2019

Members of a Greek fraternity at Louisiana Tech dress in blackface for costume party in 1997. Courtesy photo

Vauderville duo Charles Sellers and George Moran, known as Two Black Crows and Moran and Mack, were popular for their blackface comedy routine in the 1920s and '30s. Courtesy photo

Amid national controversy regarding the use of blackface by white politicians, right down the road at Louisiana Tech University, a controversial yearbook photo has resurfaced on social media from 1997 of a fraternity in blackface. 

 

This is far from Louisiana Tech’s first run in with racial insensitivity or outright racism both as an institution or from the student body. 

 

Louisiana Tech, like many predominantly white institutions in the South, has a history steeped in segregation. While it was first established in 1894, Louisiana Tech did not admit the first Black students until over 70 years later in 1965. While the institution has now named a scholarship in the honor of the first African American students admitted, the revelation of the blackface photo is another black eye for racial parity on LA Tech’s campus. 

 

More recently, in 2014 a member of Kappa Sigma fraternity at Louisiana Tech was outed publicly for posting a racial slur posted in a private group chat on social media. The photo featured a post regarding grades where Christian Scott, a member of Kappa Sigma at Louisiana Tech, used a racial slur to describe grades trumping African American fraternities. 

 

Louisiana Tech’s renewed struggles come as a study released on Feb. 11 by the Pew Research Center found that more than a third of Americans do not think it is offensive for white people to darken their skin for Halloween costumes. 

 

The results of this study and the revealing of the photo captured at LA Tech comes as politicians from both of the country’s main political parties have recently been caught either posing for photos in blackface or admitting to dressing in blackface, resulting in attention again being focused on a much maligned, centuries old practice. 

 

In recent news, Gov. Ralph Northam, a Virginia Democrat, was forced to issue an apology following a blackface photo that resurfaced from his 1984 yearbook. While Northam has said the photo was not of him, he did admit to dressing in blackface as Michael Jackson for a costume party. 

 

Since the news broke, Virginia’s political leadership has been embroiled in controversy with scandals swirling around top elected officials. 

 

According to Fenit Nirappil for The Washington Post, “Attorney General Mark Herring (D) admitted wearing blackface as a college student when he dressed as a rapper and Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment (R-James City) acknowledged he was the editor of a 1968 yearbook that included racial slurs and blackface photos.”

 

On Feb. 16, The Washington Post’s Cleve R. Wootson Jr. posted an article discussing other politicians who have been caught on camera, few of who have suffered “lasting” repercussions. 

 

State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a Brooklyn Democrat, defended his basketball-player costume, including blackface and an Afro wig while, celebrating the holiday of Purim in 2013.

 

In 2014, Washington state mayoral candidate David Sponheim felt that painting his face black would bring authenticity to his Barack Obama costume. Sponheim argued that black people can dress up as whites without backlash, referring to 2004 comedy “White Chicks.”

 

In 2015, Bill Helton, a mayoral candidate in Oklahoma, said his blackface drag performance as “Pollyester Kotton” is not racist because he has African American friends. 

 

“These politicians — from the North and the South, from urban and rural areas,” Wootson Jr. wrote in The Washington Post. “Democrats and Republicans — have defended their actions as benign parody and accused their critics of being humorless and hypersensitive.” 

 

Blackface first emerged in the early 1800s, when white actors darkened their faces with burned cork or shoe polish to mimic and stereotype slaves. 

 

Between 1865–1877, federal laws protected African Americans who had formerly been slaves, and few that had been free before the war. Once Democrats regained power in the South, officeholders used insurgent paramilitary groups to intimidate blacks to suppress their voting. 

 

According to Vann C. Woodward and William S. McFeely, authors of The Strange Career of Jim Crow, the national Democratic Party began to regain footing in Washington, D.C. before reaching a compromise to gain Southern support in the 1877 presidential election at which point the last of the federal troops were withdrawn from the South. When segregationist, white Democrats regain political power and took over the legislatures and local governments in every Southern state and passed Jim Crow laws, officially segregating black people from the white population and disenfranchising their right to vote. 

 

Eventually those who could not vote were not eligible to serve on juries and could not run for local offices. They were absent in the political life, as they could not influence the state legislatures, and their interests were overlooked. While public schools had been established by Reconstruction legislatures for the first time in most Southern states, those for black children were consistently underfunded compared to schools for white children.

 

But where did the term “Jim Crow” originate from? “Jim Crow” or “Jump Jim Crow” is a song and dance from 1828 that was done in blackface by white minstrel performer Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice. According to a 1881 article in The New York Times, The song is speculated to have been stolen from Jim Crow, sometimes called Jim Cuff, a physically disabled African slave, who is variously claimed to have resided in St. Louis, Cincinnati, or Pittsburgh.

 

The question that is posed is what are the actions following the blackface costume party? You cannot expect to be the same person 10, 20 years from now. Furthermore, have the politicians in question, done everything they can for the black community? You cannot expect to be the same person 10, 20 years from now. A pattern is more important than a simple picture. 

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