“Public archives are your best friend:” How student journalists broke the story on VCU’s history of blackface, “slave sale” fundraisers and more

Over the past few weeks, media practitioners vigorously reported on the “blackface” revelations associated with politicians in Virginia and the student journalists at the Commonwealth Times were no different. In digging deep into the archives of Virginia Commonwealth University, the students there found not only a history of blackface photos, but also racist references to Native Americans and Asians as well.

The article and photo package the students built showed that these racist elements included a “slave sale” and blackface imagery in a yearbook as late as 1989.


The front page of the Commonwealth Times at Virginia Commonwealth University. Courtesy of Allison Dyche and the CT staff.

Allison Dyche, the director of student media at Virginia Commonwealth University, said since the revelations emerged that a blackface photo ran on the yearbook page of Gov. Ralph Northam, the students at the CT pursued the story like many other journalists throughout the country.

“The students have been closely following the story about Gov. Northam since it broke,” she said. “We’re the capital of Virginia, so it’s all happening right down the street from us. The students from The CT covered Northam’s press conference, and published a timeline of events in their paper this past week. They’ve been covering the story nonstop, because they’re great journalists, it was changing on an almost daily basis with new updates, and because it’s happening where they live and go to school.”

News editor Fadel Allassan, a senior majoring in political science, said he saw stories about Northam’s situation as well as a story regarding racist photos in yearbooks at the nearby University of Richmond. It was at that point, he said he wondered what might be hidden deep in the VCU archives.

“We had been seeing old racist yearbook photos pop up all around us and I decided to look into it,” he said. “I went to the physical archives at VCU and looked for a couple of hours. I didn’t find anything until the building closed. On my way out, I started talking with the gentleman working at the archives as he closed up shop, and he told me to keep digging because I would find stuff, as he had seen some racist imagery in the books before.”

Allassan said he offered his reporters an opportunity to help him look into the yearbooks and news writer Hannah Eason jumped at the chance. Eason, a sophomore broadcast major from Farmville, Virginia, said she knew it was a big story and didn’t want to miss out on it.

“Considering the current journalism climate with every news organization pulling yearbooks– after Gov. Ralph Northam’s yearbook exposure– we didn’t waste any time,” she said. “I looked through the yearbooks all night on Thursday and we published on Friday. We didn’t want someone to break the story before us, considering (the books) were in public archives and anyone could be doing research about it.”

The staff had to make decisions on what would run and how to explain the photos, Allassan said. The goal was to provide a thorough view of what the yearbooks from the past presented and how recently racist images were included in these volumes.

“We had to edit the story, take out the photos we weren’t sure about,” Allassan said. “In some of the photos, it was too unclear as to what was going on, so we left them out. It was hard because some of the photos were from the ’40s and ’50s and hard to see. We then had to figure out the best web presentation and how to treat the story appropriately.”

Once the story hit the web, Dyche said the students received a lot of attention for their efforts, with publications like the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the Daily Progress and the Winston-Salem Journal   covering their work. She said she hadn’t heard any negative reactions from the administration.

“I’m not aware of any pushback the students received from anyone,” she said. “The library archive is available to anyone, so the students were able to access it easily. I have not received any emails or phone calls either. The story published on Friday afternoon on The CT’s website. The reporter, Hannah Eason, was interviewed by a local TV news outlet that evening.”

Eason said her experience with this story just reinforced the notion that stories are everywhere and that public documents are a valuable commodity for journalists.

“I would tell a student that public archives are your best friend,” she said. “There can be cool stories (or huge, in this case.) As a journalist, I think it’s easy to forget that police records, court papers, legal documents, and even library archives can be goldmines of information which can lead to a great story. Connect your research/findings to something current and important and — BAM! —  you’ve got a story.”

Eason also said she considers this story the most important one she has produced for the CT. In terms of the overall impact in the area, she said the university has consistently worked to provide a progressive atmosphere, in spite of issues like this one.

“I think we’ve all been pretty consistent that blackface is wrong, disgraceful, and outright racist,” Eason said. “That hasn’t changed. VCU has overall been pretty progressive in standing up for minority groups and making a point to make them feel included/welcomed/loved. I think that the hardest part of this has been Northam’s connection to it. I feel that Northam was pretty well-liked by the younger college demographic, especially in Richmond.”

Allassan said he hopes the story will help students at VCU reexamine the history of the area and think about it more deeply.

“As students we’re often not aware of what it means to be a campus located directly where the capital of the Confederacy stood,” he said. “That notion is pretty jarring if you compare it to how progressive and diverse our school is. We may have been ignorant as to what our history is, but I wonder if these recent events will change that.”

In terms of moving forward, Dyche said her students are continuing to cover the situation at the capitol and keeping track of what other elements might emerge regarding these issues on campus.

“I’m thrilled to see my students taking the initiative to go look through archives to find things to help drive a story even closer to home than it already was,” Dyche said. “They were timely with the story, and set aside hours to go search through the archives to see what they could find. I love to see students find new and old ways of finding new story ideas, and to see them put in the necessary effort to make a story happen.”

“The fact that the story was picked up by so many other news outlets just drives home the fact that it was a timely story and one that needed to be shared, and I’m glad to see my students are the ones taking the time and putting in the work to inform their audience,” she added.




Leave a Reply