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Houston Matters

Examining The Racist History Of Blackface

With recent controversies surrounding photos of public figures in blackface, we learn about the history of blackface and how it’s influenced thinking about African Americans.


Demonstrators hold signs and chant outside the governor’s mansion in Richmond, Va., calling for the resignation of Gov. Ralph Northam.


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Earlier this month, a racist photo of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam surfaced from a 1984 medical school yearbook page. It showed one person in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe.

After initially apologizing for appearing in the photo, Northam denies he's in it, but he has admitted to wearing blackface for a Michael Jackson dance contest around that same time.

The Virginia governor is now planning to head out on what he's calling a reconciliation tour. A national conversation has ensued, prompting others to take renewed looks at yearbooks and other photos going back as early as the 1980s.

Jonathan Chism is an assistant professor of history at the University of Houston Downtown. His research explores the intersections between religion, race, and politics.

In the audio above, producer Michael Hagerty talks with Chism about the racist history of blackface and why it's been largely ignored up to this point.

Jonathan Chism is an assistant professor of history at the University of Houston-Downtown specializing in African American religious history.
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Michael Hagerty

Michael Hagerty

Senior Producer, Houston Matters

Michael Hagerty is the senior producer for Houston Matters. He's spent more than 20 years in public radio and television and dabbled in minor league baseball, spending four seasons as the public address announcer for the Reno Aces, the Triple-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

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