Dr. Meg Mulrooney, associate vice provost and professor of history at James Madison University, has written a blog post on her research and work with students on how blackface on campus has functioned as a form of cultural violence against Black people. Below is an excerpt. Read the full post here.
From 1908 until roughly 1958, the administration and faculty actively encouraged blackface as evidenced by its presence at official school events, in its student organizations, and its publications. The evidence is overwhelming that the all-white, female student body participated enthusiastically in these caricatures; among other things, they routinely staged their own amateur minstrel shows, photographed themselves in blackface, and proudly saved programs that stated their real names and the roles they played. They also referenced blackface in other ways: in cartoon sketches of black people that decorated ephemera, in racist dialect that appeared in song lyrics and plays and poems, and in initiation rites for clubs. Just as it was in American culture, broadly, blackface on this campus functioned as a form of cultural violence against Black people. Along with other behaviors, it supported the cultural construction of white, Southern womanhood even if “not all students” participated. That these young women were training to become teachers must also be recognized, for many familiar children’s songs, like Oh Susanna and Cindy, Cindy were minstrel songs.
Although it did start to diminish after WWII, blackface activities persisted here, as they did on other all-white Virginia campuses, through the era of the state’s massive resistance to federal desegregation mandates in the 1950s-1960s and into the decades of resistance to affirmative action in the 1970s-1990s. It is not surprising, then, to see in yearbooks and student newspapers evidence that some individuals who attended JMU in the 1980s “blacked up” at private parties, in homecoming parades, or at Greek events. Like earlier forms of blackface in the the Jim Crow era, these performances cannot be separated from the broader context of organized white resistance to higher education integration. Madison College admitted its first black student, Sheary Darcus Johnson, in 1966, and its first black graduate student in 1969, however, desegregation proceeded very slowly throughout the 1970s. In fact, Virginia’s official policy of resistance did not end until the administration of Gov. John Dalton began in 1978, the same year that the Supreme Court’s famous Bakke decision gave rise to the concept of “reverse discrimination.” What was it like to be a Black student or staff member or instructor at Madison at that time? In previous public history seminars, my students and I explored the transformation of this institution in a series of web-based exhibits called Madison in the 1970s. That project demonstrates that the changing trajectory of American higher education, including contemporary efforts to make JMU more diverse and inclusive, are very recent indeed.