Story updated with comment from President Thayne McCulloh.
Photos with blackface from old school yearbooks have surfaced locally and across the country in recent months, causing institutions to reckon with their pasts. Now, Gonzaga is getting proactive.
In an email to students, faculty and staff in late March, administrators announced a review of the university’s archives for culturally or racially inappropriate images. So far, the search has flagged photos and illustrations from previous editions of The Bulletin and Spires, the Rogues Gallery and collections of sheet music and Bing Crosby memorabilia. Most of the images originate between the 1930s and 1970s.
“The initial process is looking through the materials and identifying things that are potentially insensitive,” said Paul Bracke, dean of Library Services and co-author of the email.
The audit through GU’s archives is being completed by three people and is in its early stages. Bracke said the university is still deciding how to refine its search, which led by Special Collections Librarian Stephanie Plowman. It’s set to wrap up this summer.
“We’re yet to understand exactly how we’re going to utilize what we learn through the internal reflection and morph it into some teachable moments or learning opportunities for faculty, staff and students,” said Raymond Reyes, chief diversity officer and co-author of the email.
Reyes has worked at GU for more than 30 years. He said the university’s handling of its past is a sign of progress.
“Where else can you find hope than to be able to connect the dots and see the line is arching upward?” he said. “How we handle this and how we manage this gives me hope.”
The email, co-authored by President Thayne McCulloh, says the university will acknowledge the flagged images within the digital archives and Rogues Gallery along with statements of support for diversity, equity and inclusion.
"I think we are doing our best to find a way of acknowledging our history while also not leaving to speculation our contemporary view of [offensive material]," McCulloh said in an email Friday.
A notice on the University Archives & Special Collections webpage warns "some materials contain offensive images, language or other objectionable content."
Additionally, a form is available for people to flag offensive archive items.
GSBA President Athena Sok said she’s encouraged to see GU’s approach. She added departments like the Office of Diversity, Inclusion, Community and Equity (DICE) and administrators working behind the scenes have made GU a more welcoming school.
“It means a lot coming from the president,” she said.
GSBA President-elect Michael Tanaka said he also was happy to see the president’s name on the email. But, he said he didn’t know the intent of GU’s review.
“In terms of diversity and inclusion, Gonzaga has an issue of finding solutions to problems because they were identified as problems, instead of being proactive and making sure problems never happened in the first place,” he said.
The Bulletin looked through 10 yearbooks and newspapers — each at random and found multiple examples of racially insensitive material — some of which are on display on the walls of College Hall.
A photo from the 1974 Spires — which is on display in College Hall — shows a male student costumed as Adolf Hitler. Reyes said a student filed a complaint about the photo a few years ago.
Reyes said GU didn’t have a protocol for the situation, so he met with the student and addressed their concerns, but the photo was not removed.
“We do not want to rewrite history by removing or erasing these items,” Reyes said in an email. “We are a learning community devoted to the faithful pursuit of justice without engaging in revisionist history.”
Sok said something has to be done about the images that can be seen on walks to class or campus visits.
“It’s one thing to have the pictures up, but it’s another to not have anything there to explain them,” Sok said. “It’s disappointing that change has to come from students.”
Tanaka said GU shouldn’t practice revisionist history, but the photos need context.
“If I were a prospective student and I saw that picture, that would not only make me not want to go to Gonzaga, but I would think this is the university I’m being advertised,” he said.
Having tour guides explain both the good and bad sides of GU’s histories would be a good step, he added.
The Hitler photo isn’t the only one behind the glass in College Hall.
In 1967, a rendition of the play “Kismet” featured actors who darkened their skin to appear Arabic. Some of those images can be seen in a College Hall display. Another play, “Down South” in 1970, included at least one actor who used blackface. That image can also be seen on display in College Hall.
In a 1948 yearbook, two male students used blackface and portrayed racial stereotypes regarding facial features. Five years later, The Bulletin published a graphic of a black man drawn with similar facial stereotypes.
Other examples of offensive materials include men mocking femininity by wearing dresses and wigs and Miss Spokane pageant winners dressed in Native American garb.
Additionally, numerous letters to the editor in previous Bulletin issues used racist and homophobic language such as the n-word. All found examples predated the 1980s. The Bulletin staff used racial and other slurs as recent as 1973.
GU isn’t alone in dealing with offensive images from its past — even locally.
Up north at Whitworth, five female student athletes in 2015 wore afro wigs and blackface at a bowling alley. In the past, students at the university hosted minstrel shows — in which actors use blackface and act out stereotypes and other offensive material.
A 1953 GU yearbook appears to show a minstrel show as well, with one student performing in blackface during a St. Patrick’s Day celebration.
The issue isn’t exclusive to higher education.
In February, a photo of Gonzaga Prep students wearing KKK robes during a school assembly in 1968 was scrubbed digitally and from physical yearbooks after being shown to the school’s principal.
Reyes said he didn’t want to see GU take the route of erasing the school’s history.
“We have nothing to hide, nothing to control other than being responsible for knowing what we have,” he said. “What we forget we always are, but what we remember we can change.”
Bracke said that has been a “North Star” for everyone involved in the review.
With an audit of the archives underway, Reyes, Tanaka and Sok said GU’s racial issues aren’t all from the past.
Sok said white students can do more to make GU a more welcoming university. She referenced the walkout last November over the potential restructuring of DICE and the diversity department, saying it showed complacency on the part of GU’s allies when few white students stayed to participate in the demonstration.
“They know something’s wrong,” Sok said. “But they just walk past it.”
Tanaka said there’s an idea on campus that students of color are the only force for insitutitonal change. He added white allies are needed to take movements forward and advisory councils, committees and boards are a great way to get involved.
“I think the majority of Gonzaga students are willing to be allies and are willing to show up — they just don’t know how,” he said.
Reyes said some students need to be “pinched into consciousness.”
He cited a party off campus a few years ago with a theme that referenced slavery. He said he went to the house, talked with the students and they decided to cancel the party.
“It was my questions and my sincerity about trying to get my head around this,” Reyes said. “And did they realize what they were doing under the auspices of fun?”
In the fall, as GU’s critical race and ethnic studies department launches, the university will host both the Ethnicity, Race and Indigenous Peoples Conference and a campus forum on the archive review.
Joseph Thompson is the copy editor. Follow him on Twitter: @byjoeythompson.