For some years now, Vassar has been in the process of digitizing many of the rich sources housed in our Library’s Archives and Special Collections. This is a massive project, and will last far into the future. Already, however, many in the Vassar community have benefited from online access to the full run of The Miscellany News, the diaries and letters of early Vassar students, and much more. As this work proceeds, researchers on campus and across the globe will have unprecedented access to still more documents and other materials about Vassar’s history.
During this process, the Library engaged an outside service to digitize a collection of several thousand glass-plate slides—pictures taken roughly a century ago that had been sitting on shelves for decades, as they were unreadable. In that collection, it turns out, are disturbing images, including some of Vassar students and others in the Vassar community in blackface, redface, and yellowface. Additional disturbing images have been found in other Vassar collections from the same general time period, and still more may be discovered as the College Library continues the work of exploring Vassar’s archives.
The faculty, students, administrators, and librarians on the Library Committee began discussing the glass-plate slides at its first meeting of the semester, once as the librarians had a fuller view of the contents of the collection, and will continue to do so. In addition, the librarians have begun conversations with faculty and others across the campus. Since learning about this a couple of weeks ago, I have been consulting with several faculty, including librarians, and the senior team, and have decided it is important to inform our community of them.
These racist images are disgraceful. We know that such behavior has long been part of American culture, rooted in white supremacist assumptions about communities of color. Minstrelsy and other offensive cultural manifestations have profoundly shaped the limited social and material life chances experienced by African Americans, Native Americans, Afro-Latinx, and Asian Americans in the United States. We may be surprised to discover that members of the Vassar community participated in such exhibitions, yet we should not be surprised. Such practices were once accepted as entertainment, and rejection of this cultural norm has been far too slow—as it has always been degrading and dehumanizing. Recognizing that such images were normalized reminds us to reflect on the ways in which racism in the present may pass for the norm in the contemporary moment.
Painful as they are, the images, nonetheless, present an opportunity for learning about how this history of racism informs our contemporary moment and may affect the experiences of people of color at Vassar and beyond. By enhancing the accessibility of these images, supplemented by material that puts them in their historical and social context, we can and will play an essential role in students, faculty, and the wider world understanding and coming to terms in a sensitive, scholarly, thoughtful, and inclusive way with the past at Vassar—an institution grounded in the larger history of the United States.
As we do this work together, I am mindful that the pain associated with these revelations will be borne unevenly and may be particularly difficult for people of color. Let us reaffirm our commitment to practices of belonging in this community. I believe that this work, although challenging, will make the college stronger in the present and into the future.
If you wish to discuss further, please feel free to reach out by email. I am happy to meet and talk. And thank you for your continued engagement with Vassar’s past, present—and future.
Elizabeth H. Bradley, President
Poughkeepsie, NY 12604