Images of blackface, Native American caricatures, a Ku Klux Klan reference, and other offensive symbols were recently found to be present in Deerfield Pocumtuck yearbooks from the 1940s through the late 1970s.
In light of a national reckoning about the past frequency of blackface in high school and college yearbooks, the Scroll examined almost 100 yearbooks ranging from the 1920s to the present in order to gain insight into Deerfield’s own history and student culture.
Most of the images used in the yearbooks display a vibrant boarding school culture with students hard at work in the classroom, on the sports field and in a variety of clubs and extracurricular activities.
Rules around drugs and alcohol were considerably more lenient— photos often show students posing with beer bottles or other alcoholic beverages.
But several images of blackface stood out from the other images. One instance from 1948 depicts a man standing in a striped prison uniform. Two more images are from 1949, labeled as photographs from the production You Can’t Take It With You.
The actor in blackface is presumably playing Donald, a handyman for a 1930s New York City family.
An image in 1951 depicts an actor dressed as Abraham Lincoln standing over a man and woman in blackface, who are both on their knees. The final image of a student wearing blackface is in 1952, in the “Student Life” section of the yearbook. It shows a grinning man tipping his hat.
Then, in 1960, four boys are seen at a “Kennel Klub Klan” meeting, which the Scroll understands to be a KKK reference. And in 1977, an image shows a large group of boys posing around what appears to be a Jim Crow figurine.
“I found these pictures revolting and disheartening to view,” said Chris Ransom ’19, a head of the Deerfield Black Student Alliance. “Ignorance is never justified; however, the time period prevents me from being surprised.”
Blackface gained prominence during the 19th century in minstrel shows during which performers would put paint or shoe polish on their faces in order to caricature black people.
The practice continued throughout the 20th century and has waned sharply since the 1950s, but has not disappeared.
A recent USA Today investigation found over 200 examples of racist material in a review of over 900 yearbooks from colleges across the nation. And as recently as the early 2000s, Jimmy Kimmel wore blackface on a TV skit while imitating basketball player Karl Malone.
Due to the age of the yearbooks and the low resolution of the photos, the Scroll did not identify any of the individuals depicted.
There were also multiple instances of students dressing as Native Americans. An image in 1954 depicts a man speaking on stage while dressed in redface with a war bonnet.
“It’s a form of bullying and continued colonialism,” said Kaelene Spang ’19, head of the Native American Cultural Alliance, about the photo. “As a Native American, when I see stuff like that, it hurts my self-esteem.”
Spang called the redface “cultural appropriation,” saying the war bonnet and tradition of face painting are sacred parts of Native American culture.
In another set of images from 1950, a mass of students are dressed up as Native Americans from head to toe. There is a long history of Deerfield Academy and the town participating together in a pageant reenactment of the Deerfield Massacre, the 1704 raid during which French and Native American forces attacked the English settlement in Deerfield, killing 47 villagers.
“It’s a ham-handed, buffoonish way for the Deerfield students back then to connect themselves with the history of the area, and specifically with the raid of 1704,” said Science Teacher Dennis Cullinane, who is the faculty advisor of the Native American Cultural Alliance.
One McAlister 2 hall photo from 1972 shows a group of boys piled on top of a mass grave in the Albany Road graveyard with fake arrow injuries. Perhaps most shockingly, a faculty member poses next to them with a bow and a shovel, and is labeled as “Ghoul” in the caption.
“I think my skin would crawl if I personally tried to walk into a graveyard with a shovel, even if pretending to perform such a disrespectful deed,” Dr. Cullinane added.
In addition to the photographs, the 1952 and 1960 yearbooks also included cartoons of colonists fleeing from caricatured Native Americans, who are shooting at them with bow and arrow.
“From Deerfield, it’s kind of surprising,” Spang said. “You would think Deerfield is the place where there’s not any cultural appropriation. This year, I’ve also experienced some racism, which I was very surprised by as well.”
No instances of blackface or redface were found in any yearbooks after the 1970s.
“The lesson to take away from these photos is that we can’t alter the past; however, we can use this to shape Deerfield’s future,” Ransom said.