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Virginia State University Students Begin Project Digging Into Politicians' Yearbooks

A group of Virginia State University students
A group of Virginia State University students will research the yearbooks of politicians who went to college in Virginia. (Image: Megan Pauly/WCVE)

After Governor Northam and Attorney General Herring admitted to appearing in blackface in the 1980s, a group of activists had an idea: pay Richmond-area students from historically black colleges and universities to dig into politicians’ yearbooks. They’re closing in on their $10,000 goal to fund the project.

Briana Harris is a junior at Virginia State University majoring in political science. She wants to become a lawyer and effect change through policy. And now she expects Northam to do the same.

"If he's not going to resign, then I need to see proof - genuine policy - that supports the person he says he is now,” Harris said.

Harris is part of a small group of students examining the yearbooks of other politicians who went to college in Virginia.

"This is not a gotcha program,” said Chelsea Higgs Wise, who came up with the idea for the fellowship. She wondered, what racist images could be found in the yearbooks of other politicians? And, she thought, who better to look than students from historically black universities?

"This is about providing resources to students of color to learn different skills of research and archiving as well as to pay them for having to live through and survive the type of images that they're going to be seeing,” Wise said. “That's traumatizing to see that.”

Wise reached out to Virginia State political science professor Dr. Wes Bellamy to recruit students. “I ran it by them. Hey, any of you all interested in doing this project? And they said, yeah, Dr B., we’d love to do so,” Bellamy said.

Neese Jefferson is a 19-year-old sophomore. She says she’s excited about honing her research skills.

"Just going beyond the surface,” Jefferson said. “Going beyond Google, you know what I'm saying? Like you know, using databases and scholarly articles and stuff. Instead of just, you know, Wikipedia.”

Irina Rogova is an archivist for University of Richmond's Race & Racism Project. She'll help students in the new fellowship program learn research skills. (Photo: M. Pauly) 

A group of area archivists have signed on to help the students, including Irina Rogova with the University of Richmond. She’ll teach students research tips, things like how to “tag” topics so they’re searchable.

"How I explain it to students sometimes: I'm like, it's like a Hashtag,” Rogova said. “You want to collect things.”

She’s already doing that now, with the college’s race and racism project, which helps catalyze conversations about the University of Richmond's history.

"There were definitely instances of the raising of the Confederate flag. There was something called the old south ball that would be put on and the men would come in Confederate uniforms,” Rogova said. “We have the Confederate spider mascot as well… .”

Mychala Walker, a 17-year-old freshman, interned this year with Virginia Senator Jeremy McPike. She said she was hesitant to dig into his yearbook. “I don't know about that,” Walker said. “I like my job, so I don't know about that.”

Daeisha Smith, a 21-year-old junior who recently interned for state Senator Rosalyn Dance, says the project is bigger than just yearbooks.

“What I really hope is for legislators to hear our voice and want to take the initiative to change the policy,” Smith said.

Along with Virginia Union University students, they’re expected to kick off research in the coming weeks. After they wrap up over the summer, they’ll share it with local high school students. The findings will serve as an educational tool, and a way to connect with role models from historically black colleges in the area.

Megan Pauly reports on early childhood and higher education news in Virginia
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