Editorial: Acknowledging racial, discriminatory historical practices on UMN campus

The Daily Editorial Board look to past issues of “The Gopher” to unveil an aspect of UMN’s history, not often discussed.

Photos printed in the early 1900s from University of Minnesota yearbooks depicting discriminatory practices and actions on campus.

Photo courtesy of University of Minnesota Archives

Photos printed in the early 1900s from University of Minnesota yearbooks depicting discriminatory practices and actions on campus.

Daily Editorial Board

The Minnesota Daily Editorial Board decided we would do some digging into the University of Minnesota’s history with cultural and racial discrimination from the late 1800s into the 1970s. Looking through old copies of “The Gopher” yearbook, we found darker elements of student life. We are highlighting this part of our University’s history — not to spark controversy, but to recognize the history — instead of burying it.  

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam admitted to wearing black face during medical school in the 1980s. This prompted others to encourage the Democratic governor to resign from his position in order to hold himself accountable for his college antics. This sparked conversation among our team. 

We did not choose to bring these photos to light to criticize the University, but to remind everyone of the discrimination that was perpetrated on our campus. We must publicly acknowledge what happened and learn from our school’s past mistakes. 

In a yearbook dating back to 1923, there is a photo of a parade with a Ku Klux Klan float leading a trail of three cars through campus streets. Photos from the same decade include white men at a forestry camp with their faces painted black titled, “Sambo and His Minstrels,” as well as a drawing of a black man shining shoes. While there were not many, black students were enrolled at the University while these activities happened and were celebrated. 

Among the photos we looked through, we found a section dedicated to a University campus circus. Men dressed up as Native Americans and carried around guns, essentially making a spectacle of native culture and practices. Our publicly funded, land-grant institution has a clear history of discriminatory behavior. We cannot continue to ignore it. 

We only had space to show a select few in the paper, but there were countless other examples of racial intolerance, including antisemitism and anti-Arab displays. While there were a few decades with a stronger concentration of incidents, we found consistent evidence of this behavior. 

These documents are easily available. All yearbooks are available publicly, free of charge, in the basement of Andersen Library. Examples of racial bigotry are hidden in plain sight and no one really talks about them outside the “A Campus Divided” exhibit. Although the exhibit reminds us about cruel actions of past administrators, we can’t forget that similar actions happened among the student population.

It’s crucial we understand our school’s history by acknowledging these photos. By giving ourselves a reminder, we think of current students who experience feeling alienated or discriminated against, and encourage themselves and others to speak up. Our campus thrives and prides itself on its diversity. It’s important that the student body continues to reflect that. 

We choose to not allow these instances to be buried, as many people often do. Instead, we remember past mistakes as opportunities to learn and create a better campus environment for all University students.