A shadow of reflection: Rider archives reveal decades of racist incidents
By Megan Lupo
Amongst senior portraits and student group photos in Rider’s now-defunct yearbook The Shadow lurks a darker depiction of racial ignorance, uncovered by The Rider News.
Since the Feb. 1 photographic bombshell of a person wearing blackface and another dressed as a Ku Klux Klan member was found in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook page of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, college communities throughout the country are dusting off old yearbooks to discover what the tales of years past might reveal.
According to recent news reports, Northam’s other alma mater, Virginia Military Institute, printed several racist photos and slurs in its 1968 yearbook, The Bomb. The 1970 edition of the Terrapin yearbook at the University of Maryland showcased members of a fraternity simulating a lynching. The Cherry Tree yearbook at George Washington University showed a white-hooded person dancing at a party in 1965.
And The Rider News discovered that in 1954, 1968 and 1987, Rider depicted blackface in its yearbooks, unearthing a past culture of racist incidents supported by the collection of older articles of The Rider News.
Although the nation’s yearbook revelations are happening predominately in other parts of the country, Associate Professor of Communication Sheena Howard said the Rider community should not be shocked that blackface had a place on its campus.
“Rider is not immune to America’s racist history, present or future. The incidents of blackface in Rider yearbooks is not surprising and just an indication that as a community we need to do better,” Howard said. “For those of us that care about a better future for all people, we must not be complicit when we see both explicit and implicit forms of racism.”
Visibly aghast upon viewing blackface on the Caucasian skins of 1954 sorority women, a man during the 1968 homecoming weekend and 1987 lip sync male contestants, collectively named the Fat Boys, junior political science major Charles Palmer voiced a desire to raise awareness of the images.
“I think blackface is something that our society saw as acceptable in our history. However, society has progressed, and there is no room for hatred,” Palmer said. “I think it stems from a deep cultural problem that we must acknowledge.”
Junior global studies major Carissa Zanfardino, whose mother and uncle were graduates of Rider in the 1980s, offered her perspective on the importance of recognizing the historical gravity of blackface and accepting responsibility for engaging in it, no matter how long ago the incident occured.
“Blackface is an inherently racist activity that was prevalent in the 20th century to mock or, in [blackface participants’] words ‘represent’ people of color. It’s unacceptable,” Zanfardino said. “[Although] we might be living in the age that people might be aware that it’s wrong, they need to be held accountable for their actions, even though it was 20, 30, 40 years ago. [If not,] it might set a precedent that they can get away with [blatant wrongdoings].”
As Zanfardino believed that the school’s blackface photos were taken in an era where those racist representations were seen as comical, Vice President for Student Affairs Leanna Fenneberg assured that the current university administration condemns these disturbing images, as they do not reflect the campus’ mission and vision today.
“Recently, concerns arisen nationally with the surfacing of troubling images and representations in college yearbooks, many of which have been clearly racist in nature. It has come to our attention that photos have emerged from Rider University’s historical yearbooks,” Fenneberg said. “This kind of representation of insensitivity, bigotry and racism does not align with Rider’s commitment to a diverse and inclusive community.”
The dedication toward a more diverse environment emphasizes Rider’s current progressiveness, as Rider had struggled with racial tension throughout the past few decades.
“Rider is a majority Caucasian school, and back in the ’80s, ’60s even more [so, as Caucasians being] the far, far majority,” Zanfardino said. “There was a very miniscule minority at Rider.”
According to a 1987 Rider News article, former associate provost Phyllis Frakt said that “Rider College has one of the lowest percentages of minority students in New Jersey,” and three years prior in 1984, the late assistant director of admissions and financial aid Maurice Palmer said in a 1992 issue that the population of those that were not white didn’t even reach one percent.
In the midst of this overwhelming racial disparity, there were sprinklings throughout a span of three decades of alleged and proven racially-motivated occurrences, according to several Rider News reports.
The 1970s provided two early racial incidents — one of a racism survey and one of a cross burning.
An article was published in the 1971 edition about a questionnaire that was distributed to students, faculty and administration on institutional racism at Rider, and one of the noted comments handed in said, “If you wish total blackness, there is enormous space in Africa.”
In the mid-’70s, a cross-burning was conducted on the campus mall prior to a Kool and the Gang concert held in the Alumni Gym, where 60 percent of the concert-goers were black, according to the then-assistant security director Anthony Ranfone, quoted in the 1975 Rider News. Although Ranfone, who was terminated prior to the investigation, concluded the action to be a prank and not the work of the Ku Klux Klan, in part because investigators reported no rags were used, an eyewitness reported to the newspaper that he did see rags attached to a three-foot burning cross with young adults near it, who quickly ran away.
Despite the lack of confirmation as to who the perpetrators were, Jeff English, former president of the Association for Black Collegians at the time, deemed the act to be one of intimidation and ignorance toward a predominately black group and criticized campus security for easily disregarding it as harmless.
No Rider News reports of the results of the investigation handled by the Lawrence Township police and Rider security were found.
The beginning of racial issues in the 1980s started off with a 1980 Rider News article, reporting that a group of roommates in a dormitory hung Ku Klux Klan signs, supposedly as a joke, on the door of the only-black resident at the time.
Toward the end of the 1980s and early 1990s, African American and Asian students were voicing their mistreatment and protesting their under-representation.
In both January and March 1989 issues, several students spoke out against racist slurs hurled at them, including the ‘n-word.’ Angela Lau, a Rider News staff writer in the 1990s, wrote a 1992 editorial about a Caucasian female screaming “inkchay” at her across the campus quad, which Lau later found was pig Latin for the ethnic slur, ‘chink.’
In 1989, The Shadow depicted a protest by underrepresented students carrying signs, exclaiming “wrestle out racism” and “we demand respect” and marching outside the Alumni Gym to urge Rider to “increase its minority enrollment” and “hire more minority professors.” A student marcher recalled being called the ‘n-word’ to her face and expressed anger over the lack of black administrators, according to the yearbook.
In The Shadow two years prior to the protest was a photo of blackface. The three Caucasian men were photographed performing on stage in a lip sync battle hosted by Lincoln Hall, wearing tracksuits and sneakers with two of the students, who both could not be reached for comment, painting their faces darker to depict black men. The man in the middle in the light-colored Adidas warm-up suit confirmed that the only makeup he applied to his face was for a beard.
Despite the students’ participation in blackface, Zanfardino laid partial blame on the yearbook staff.
Zanfardino said, “I think that for the editors of the yearbooks, it was in poor taste.”
Former yearbook advisor for the 1987 and 1989 issues, Professor Thomas Simonet, echoed that sentiment, providing contemplation on the differences of the times.
“This is embarrassing. As adviser to The Shadow, I should have spoken up. But it never crossed my mind to challenge that photo. Even in the 1980s, even in New Jersey, this was simply a cultural blind spot — at least for me, but I think for Rider in general,” Simonet, who is retired, said. “I actually didn’t learn about the complex, painful history of minstrelsy until 2016. That was like yesterday, right? I apologize.”
The most criticism that Simonet said he received over a photo at the time of his advising was of a student mooning the camera.
In regards to the blackface photo, Simonet said, “No one, white or African-American, ever raised a flag about the photo until now.”
Even though Simonet never heard objections, he wanted to use his newfound awareness as a learning opportunity.
“I believe the students in The Shadow photo and those who published it had no hurtful intentions. They thought they were making a joke — crude, maybe, but not mean-spirited. The Fat Boys group themselves had elements of self-parody. But we all have to remember that the way we represent any people starts constructing reality in our minds,” Simonet said. “The Rider News is to be commended for taking a close look at the way racial attitudes have evolved in our community. This reporting is something we can all learn from.”
Donald Brown, former assistant dean for multicultural affairs and director of the multicultural center from 1989 to 2013, provided his opinion on whether students at the time realized the severity of doing blackface, although he was not yet employed by Rider during the year the yearbook photo was published.
“Blackface was going on for quite some time. If you [or your parents] were raised [during] the Civil Rights movement, then you knew about it and were quite aware of it. However, when you’re a generation away from it and you’re at a place like Rider, it’s probably less known [for a majority of students,]” Brown said. “Therefore, you have to respond to each group of students differently in terms of that.”
Although the blackface photo did not reach local or even national headlines at the time of its publication, the 1993 racist actions of Rider’s now-disbanded chapter of the fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi did.
According to a 1993 Shadow article, during the first week of January of that year, a letter was presented to then-President J. Barton Luedeke, reporting incidents of racism occurring at one of the university’s fraternities. That incident was found to be an event entitled “n-word night” or “dress like a n-word night,” where new member pledges were forced to dress in stereotypical black outfits and clean the fraternity house.
Phi Kappa Psi was found guilty of indecent conduct in hazing in the judicial hearing held by the student administrative services and had its charter suspended for a year. The national office removed the local chapter permanently of its national charter, as they found Rider’s Phi Kappa Psi lied to them, not before they made national news and appeared on the Maury Povich show, according to a 1993 Rider News article.
Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs Jan Friedman-Krupnick, who began at Rider in 1979, remembers being appalled over the entire ordeal, as she said there was never any negative or disturbing publicity of that magnitude before and after at Rider, even if the students involved might not have realized the grave effect of their actions.
“It was not a question at all that it was unacceptable, but if you ask me whether that the average person on the street had that awareness or education, I am going to say it was less likely so. But that doesn’t excuse it. It was unacceptable,” Friedman-Krupnick said. “We were all horrified at what had happened. We immediately took action to suspend activities of the organization. There was a hearing to determine whether they should continue, but the national organization, if I remember correctly, ultimately pulled the charter.”
Brown said that although there were other lesser-known incidents happening, the Phi Kappa Psi incident sparked the initiation for change, and he and Friedman-Krupnick worked together, along with other administrators, to examine and try to change Rider’s cultural climate.
“It was totally racist. Whether or not they realized it was the question we had to come up with. We had to highlight where the issues were there and find a way,” Brown said. “The communications department responded to this and got together with me in the multicultural center to [create] what is known today as Unity Day.”
In regards to Rider’s current Greek Life, significant improvements have been made to prevent similar incidents from ever occurring on campus, according to Matt Cecere, coordinator for the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life.
“We find out everything [the fraternities and sororities] do. We find out all the details. We ask for everything that they are doing with their new members, what programs they’re doing, what activities they’re doing, great detail,” Cecere said. “Every event is described out to me in these new member education plans or intake coordinator plans. We get as much information as we can. Something like that will never happen again with the potential new members.”
Although Cecere said there had been a few sporadic incidents, there had been nothing as major since the early ‘90s.
“We have a Greek values board that we implemented four years ago, so that keeps every Greek student accountable on campus, and it’s through education sanctions,” Cecere said. “Whoever comes in and reports an incident that occurs, they go through our conduct system. Not only our university conduct system, but our Greek conduct system as well.”
In addition, Cecere shared that his team had been working with the Office of the Center of Diversity and Inclusion for the past year to give out an annual programing award to one chapter, in recognition of inclusive work.
“We’ve been trying very hard to have diversity and inclusion done not only through our standards and expectation process, which is our Greek accreditation process, but also try to get it in our daily operation, as well,” Cecere said.
Concerning underrepresentation, Friedman-Krupnick assured that the incoming freshman classes have been more and more diverse.
According to Jennifer Cafiero-Therien, director of enrollment planning and reporting, the fall 2018 freshman class had a underrepresented population of 45 percent, compared to an 11 percent of underrepresented students in the class of 1987, mentioned in a 1989 Rider News article.
Although there were some relatively recent incidents on campus where students reported being called the ‘n-word’ after the 2016 presidential election, according to Friedman-Krupnick. The campus has committed, as part of both the university strategic and student affairs plans, to improve the environments for students who come from diverse backgrounds.
“We have a commitment not to just say we want to do it, but to do it,” Friedman-Krupnick said. “Especially since Fenneberg came, the vice president of student affairs, she had set that as a priority to student affairs to add a position for the Center of Diversity and Inclusion.”
Serving on the Student Government Association’s equity inclusion committee and a new fraternity member of Sigma Phi Epsilon, Palmer, who had been a witness to the ongoing improvements, said, “As a black citizen, I think society must acknowledge its past to have a more progressive future. I’ve seen how administrators have worked toward a more inclusive campus.”
Acknowledging the racial issues that Rider experienced over its 154 years, the modern administration said it is dedicated to building Rider up to become a more welcoming and embracing community.
“These images from our past allow us to reflect on our history, both as an institution and as a nation,” Fenneberg said. “These reflective moments give us pause to reaffirm commitment to our values that promote respect for all members of our community, inclusive of all of their identities.”
For students that need a safe place to process the stories and photos presented, Howard suggested a multitude of services on campus.
“There are resources on campus to help students through the discovery of this sad information, including the multicultural studies program, Pam Pruitt’s office and other student clubs focused on making Rider a culturally safe place,” Howard said. “These resources are there to help students deal with any forms of racism they might experience on campus and to educate all of us on the importance of moving toward a enriching multicultural world that we can all thrive in.”
Director of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion Pamela Pruitt, who has been at Rider for six years, concluded with introspection on the matter.
“While I cannot judge the motives of others, I draw caution to anyone wearing costumes or apparel that may be offensive. The use of blackface is an offensive racial caricature,” Pruitt said. “Many of us may do foolish acts when we are young. While it is reasonable to be offended, it is also reasonable to consider redemption and forgiveness.”