Was there a big sale on blackface and KKK costumes that I missed?

The Virginia governor, Ralph Northam, is in the news for a 1980s photo featuring blackface and KKK costumes.

My question today for readers: Have you ever personally attended an event in which people dressed up either in blackface or in a KKK outfit?

Personal answer: No! And I don’t think it is because I have been associating only with the most sensitive Americans.

Was there a wave of popularity for either blackface or KKK costumes at some point that I completely missed?


17 thoughts on “Was there a big sale on blackface and KKK costumes that I missed?

  1. Even n the 80’s this wasn’t cool. It shows a mindset and a philosophy about a race of people. Where’s the funny in this. On the other hand are we accountable for actions we take in our twenties in our mid forties. We all made poor decisions in our youth

  2. Since I was alive back then I can’t remember such a thing. I don’t consider myself having been particularly enlightened at the time but it would have NEVER occurred to either me or the knuckleheads I hung out with to participate in such a thing. I could have done the real thing as KKK would occasionally hold gatherings about 20-ish miles from where I lived. Perhaps that’s why it was no joking matter.

    Of course, I never went to Medical school so…

  3. No. And I would have (and will) left any gathering where there were.

    I’m amazed that now he claims he’s not either of the people in the photo, which raises a lot more questions than it answers. Why, then, did he choose a photo of *other people* dressed up like that to feature on his yearbook page? Did he know them? Were they pals of his? Or did the yearbook staff put the wrong photo in there and he just…let it slide? Was he rummaging around in the desk drawer thinking…”Ok, here’s the sports jacket…and this is my down home cowboy hat picture…and oooOoohhh, honey…the Corvette convertible with the mag wheels, that’s gotta go in there. Need something else too…oh, yeah! Blackface and Klansman! What a weekend that was!”

  4. Not that many people today would care, but the actual history of the KKK in some parts of the country might be a little surprising. I’m 64 and my father’s family was from a region with a history of KKK activity so I heard stories. One of the things the Klan was known for in that particular area was a “war” they had with the local Jewish gangsters. It was during prohibition and the gangsters controlled the alcohol supply and the (illegal) bars. The Klan was pro-temperance. Other Klan activity in earlier periods had particular objectives, for example, intimidating black miners brought in during strikes. If anyone came to a party dressed up like a Klansman in that part of the country, even today, it would freak out everyone. Vigilantes are not a joke in regions with a history of that sort of activity. Below is a link to the history of the Klan in my father’s area (Southern Illinois) Take a look at the photo of the Klansman in that article. Probably not what you would have expected and not very funny either.

    • The original Klan formed immediately after the civil war was a terrorist organization but the Klan in the 1920’s was sort of a racist version of the Knights of Columbus where the members would go to the club house and get drunk. (It was also a multi-level marketing scam – the organizers made big $ by selling Klan regalia).

      The pyramid scheme collapsed when the Depression hit. When I was growing up in rural NJ, a local Jewish family had bought the former KKK clubhouse and used it as a chicken coop. Later the Township bought the building and used it as a rec center.

    • Hi Jack Dee,
      “… but the Klan in the 1920’s was sort of a racist version of the Knights of Columbus where the members would go to the club house and get drunk. ”

      That’s interesting, do you have a reference for that? In1920’s, at least in Southern Illinois, the Klan was pro-temperance and were attacking the gangsters who ran the roadhouses there. Here’s another link to article about that, google “Williamson County Illinois KKK” and you will find more.

    • Jack Dee:
      .. but the Klan in the 1920’s was sort of a racist version of the Knights of Columbus where the members would go to the club house and get drunk.

      According to Wikipedia:
      Historians agree that the Klan’s resurgence in the 1920s was aided by the national debate over Prohibition.[116] The historian Prendergast says that the KKK’s “support for Prohibition represented the single most important bond between Klansmen throughout the nation”.[117] The Klan opposed bootleggers, sometimes with violence. In 1922, two hundred Klan members set fire to saloons in Union County, Arkansas. Membership in the Klan and in other Prohibition groups overlapped, and they sometimes coordinated activities

    • The attitude regarding Prohibition was probably closely linked to the hatred of various out groups. Banning alcohol was very popular among conservative Protestants. There wasn’t much support for the 18th amendment among Catholics and Jews.

  5. When I was growing up, I heard rummer about such and similar events, but never witnessed or attend one.

    To me the larger question that no one seems to be talking about is this: who was the editor and how did the school allowed this in the school’s yearbook? Isn’t the school also responsible for allowing it in the school’s yearbook in the first place?

    We have seen schools bring down Confederate flags and status of Confederate leaders and the news is all over such events, but in this case, no one seems to talk about the school for printing it in the school’s yearbook.

    So, if blackface and wearing KKK was an acceptable practice back than at the school, town, city and state, then what we are seeing is a double standard against the governor by the news media and anyone who is against him for it.

  6. I don’t think i ever saw anyone dress up in blackface and don’t think that in 1984 this was in the mainstream of American comedy, though I suppose the real issues are how did this represent his thinking then (perhaps self evident) and how does this reflect his thinking now, e.g., let’s say he now said that it was indeed him (a memory repressed because of deep shame) and that he was a racist back then but had an epiphany in say 1991 would this, should this, make any difference? Suppose it would depend on the steps he took after 1991 to take responsibility for his former self and make amends.

  7. No. I grew up in the South and am 58. Someone showing up in a KKK outfit in public would have really been out in left field at any point in my life including my college years. I don’t know…maybe alcohol and drugs lowered the inhibitions of some of the dumber and more insecure rich kids at the fraternity parties.

    I have never seen anyone in black face other than some of the really old black and white movies. But I think the whole Black Face controversy is ridiculous anyway… just another made-up slight by the people that benefit from the victimhood culture.

    • … the whole Black Face controversy is ridiculous anyway… just another made-up slight …

      What could this mean? Is the assertion that there was no slight intended?

  8. When I was in high school in the mid ’70s, my high school in a then rural part of NJ was exceptionally white – this was before America became “diverse”. There were two high schools in the township and the (small) black neighborhood was zoned into the other school so my school must have been 99% white. One year the school play was “Finian’s Rainbow” which included a number of black characters. They just couldn’t find enough blacks in the school who were interested in playing the black characters (the plot also includes a white character who is transformed by magic from white to black and then back to white – this was before Rachel Dolezal). So some of the blacks were played by white kids wearing brown theatrical makeup (not shoe polish). IIRC, they consulted with the local NAACP, which gave them the green light. Today I’m sure that they wouldn’t but those were different times.

    In modern productions, they get around the transforming Senator issue by having him played by a 2 actors with similar builds – 1 white and 1 black.


    Anyway, this was not the kind of intentionally racially insulting blackface you were thinking of, but it was blackface (which nowadays is totally off limits regardless of good intentions).

  9. William & Mary (Jon Stewart’s school) no longer wants any significant part of him.

    “On Monday, the president of The College of William & Mary said Northam will no longer attend events on campus Friday because of the controversy.”



    It’s just such a small world, after all.

  10. That’s the thing I hate about this period of time we are living in. You do something stupid and then it is pretty much instantly broadcast to everyone in the world. We’ve run out of things to be angry about, so now consultants scour old yearbooks and newspapers looking for these pictures and public figures in them. It’s why I will never run for public office. And my history is probably much cleaner, but I still have “history”. We all do. And something as innocent as walking up to a table to ask what that group is or does could be interpreted in a picture as support for that group, or as we found out last week. A picture of a college student standing in front of an Indian with a smile on his face could be interpreted as racism.

  11. In the mid-’80s, I attended an adult Halloween Party dressed as an Arab sheik and had applied a little bit of brown face paint. There were no Arabs at the party, but no one seemed offended. There is one picture that I know of. I guess I’m screwed if I ever want to run for elected office.

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