Hollins University has reinstated four yearbooks that were removed last week from its online archives after an internal review found instances of blackface and other racist imagery.
In a campus-wide message Wednesday morning, President Pareena Lawrence reiterated that the temporary removal of the digital copies wasn’t an attempt to hide or censor a disturbing part of the university’s past.
“It is my deeply held belief that it is not enough to simply state that specific images or actions are racist,” Lawrence wrote. “In an educational community particularly, we must go further and educate ‘why’ in order to move us, and society, ahead.”
In her original announcement April 2, Lawrence had said the yearbooks would be reposted once the college could add educational context shedding light on the history of blackface and its harmful legacy.
The four yearbook editions — from 1915, 1950, 1969 and 1985 — are now back online with a notation acknowledging and rejecting the offensive images as well as directing viewers to a new page on the background of blackface.
That page is a work in progress, officials said, and will be added to over time.
The reposting of the yearbooks happened more rapidly than expected. Lawrence hadn’t set a hard deadline for the work but initially anticipated it could take a few weeks.
The yearbooks appeared to start going back online late Tuesday exactly one week after their removal.
Hard copies of the books remained available throughout this process in the school’s library and its alumnae house. Printouts of Lawrence’s statement from April 2 were placed inside each one.
But the decision to alter the university’s online archives, even temporarily, generated a wave of concern both on-and off-campus.
In one letter to the administration, leaders with the American Library Association and the Virginia Library Association said restricting access to historical materials ran counter to the field’s best practices.
Context and background are important when dealing with sensitive subject matter, it said. But records that shed light on an institution’s past shouldn’t be withheld out of fear of controversy or disapproval.
The associations urged the school to quickly reinstate its full yearbook collection. Similar appeals were made by the Society of American Archivists, Hollins staffers, and a group letter circulated by students.
The debate over archives access attracted social media attention and coverage in national outlets such as The Washington Post, U.S. News, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.
When asked if the scrutiny spurred the administration to accelerate its work, Hollins spokesman Jeff Hodges said it was always their intent to move expeditiously. He thanked Hollins library staff and its in-house working group on slavery for their hard work to make that happen.
In her message, Lawrence said she appreciated the debate and even the strong disagreement voiced on this difficult issue.
“More than ever, I believe all of us are genuinely committed to playing an active role in solving the challenges that we face and to building a better future for Hollins,” she said.
Hollins isn’t alone among colleges in working to reckon with its complex history. Blackface in older yearbooks has been part of a string of scandals that engulfed Virginia politics this year.
Lawrence referenced those events last week in explaining the decision to launch an internal review of Hollins yearbook archives.