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Gonzaga Prep reckoning with photo of students in KKK robes in 1968 yearbook

Feb. 10, 2019 Updated Mon., Feb. 11, 2019 at 1:30 p.m.

Gonzaga Prep administrators are reckoning with the discovery of a photo in the school’s 1968 yearbook that shows at least three students dressed as Ku Klux Klan members during an assembly in the school’s gym.

The students’ white robes and pointed hoods would have been hard to miss among the crowd shown in the photo. Other students in the crowd are pictured wearing football helmets and hats that appear to be costume pieces.

None of the students in the photo are identified. The caption reads, “We want Buckwheat,” an apparent reference to a black character in the TV show “The Little Rascals.” The name Buckwheat has become synonymous with the racist “pickaninny” caricature of black children.

A member of Gonzaga Prep’s Class of ‘68 pointed out the photo to fellow alumni and notified the president of the Jesuit high school on Thursday. That followed revelations that Virginia’s governor and attorney general donned blackface in the 1980s, and a wave of headlines about racist images in college yearbooks.

Such photos are commonly found in older yearbooks for schools in the South. The 1969 yearbook for the University of Mississippi, for example, shows sorority sisters performing in blackface at a “Christmas Sing Song” event. The 1979 yearbook for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill features a photo of two fraternity brothers dressed as Klansmen, pretending to lynch another student in blackface.

In a statement Friday, Gonzaga Prep said it had scrubbed the KKK photo from all copies of the 1968 yearbook held in the campus library and archives.

“We would like to officially apologize to any of our students or community members who have been affected by this racist display in 1968 or by its record in the yearbook,” the school said. “We recognize that 1968, as well as photographs and statements like these, represent a very difficult time in American history and we felt it was important to remove this racist and disrespectful content.”

The school said it would conduct an audit of all its yearbooks and archives “in order to redact any additional inappropriate content.”

A member of the Class of ’68 provided The Spokesman-Review his unredacted copy of the yearbook. The alumnus, who requested anonymity, said the photo was taken at a convention where students nominated the student body president. He said each homeroom class had selected their own “theme” for the convention, hence the football helmets, KKK robes and other costumes.

On another page, a second photo shows a crowd of students, including several who darkened their faces or drew on facial hair with what appears to be ink or polish. One student is pictured wearing a poncho and a sombrero, holding what appears to be a cigarette between his lips. Some in the photo are holding signs that say “POT.”

Neither photo is labeled with a date, but they apparently depict events that happened during the school year ending in 1968. That’s four years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the same year Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated.

In an interview, Gonzaga Prep President Michael Dougherty said he was “deeply saddened” that students dressed as members of a violent hate group, and that the photo made it into the yearbook, the Luigian.

“The organization that I know is one that is deeply devoted to the dignity of every individual,” Dougherty said.

Kurtis Robinson, president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, said he was not surprised that such a photo made it into the yearbook 50 years ago.

“I’m surprised it’s taken so long for this stuff to come to light,” Robinson said.

Told of the school’s decision to redact its copies of the yearbook, Robinson said that’s the wrong approach, a way of covering up a piece of history.

“I would rather see them own it” and demonstrate what has changed since 1968, Robinson said. “Let’s not pretend that didn’t happen.”

Dougherty said the school redacted its yearbooks because administrators felt it would be wrong to continue to “propagate” the offensive image.

“I regret the hurt that this image has caused to anyone who’s seen it from then until now,” he said.

It’s unclear how much oversight the student yearbook editors had from faculty and staff. According to one page in the 1968 yearbook, the Luigian’s “moderator” at the time was Michael J. McAuliffe, a French, Latin and Greek teacher who was training to become a Jesuit priest.

“(We) kids didn’t know any better, but there were faculty there, and it be would interesting to know what they were thinking,” said Terry Burns, a 1968 graduate who was a member of Gonzaga Prep’s camera club, which shot photos for the yearbook, newspaper and other school publications.

Burns, who has lived in Arizona for the past 40 years, said he shot hundreds of photos for the club and might have taken the KKK image, but he couldn’t remember doing so. He said he vividly remembered taking many of the other pictures in the yearbook.

Attempts to reach other alumni and former members of the yearbook staff were unsuccessful.

Burns said he believed the students in the KKK robes probably weren’t acting out of malice, and rather they just didn’t understand the group’s gruesome history. (In addition to tormenting and killing black people, the KKK was and is virulently anti-Catholic.)

Gonzaga Prep’s student body in 1968 was overwhelmingly white. Of nearly 770 students whose headshots are featured in the yearbook, only a few appear to be African American.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Monday, Feb. 11, 2019, to correct the approximate number of students featured in headshots in the yearbook.

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