McGuireWoods McGuireWoods offices in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM)

A college newspaper editorial written 39 years ago by Bradley Kutrow, now a McGuireWoods partner in North Carolina, gives a new perspective on how wearing blackface was regarded at the time in the South.

The recent revelations about top Virginia officials wearing blackface at earlier stages of their lives has prompted some to reach back and post yearbook photos from the 1970s and 1980s that depict students in blackface as well as in garb mirroring Ku Klux Klan robes.

The 1979 yearbook of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill contained just such a photo that was posted on Twitter by Colin Campbell, a reporter at the News & Observer in Raleigh.

The photo, on the page devoted to the Chi Phi fraternity chapter, depicts two students in Klan costumes holding a noose around a student wearing blackface. Another photo shows two students in blackface.

That post went viral and, in turn, led a former reporter at the student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, to dig up a 1980 editorial that denounced the photographs as proof that “those who argue that racism and discrimination on this campus are ebbing have only to look at page 400 of the 1979 Yackety Yack [yearbook] for evidence to the contrary.”

Soon Kutrow, who was an associate editor of the college newspaper at the time, acknowledged on Twitter that he wrote the editorial, describing it as “too relevant nearly 40 years after I wrote it.”

Since 2008, Kutrow has been a partner in the firm’s financial services litigation department and is co-chair of the firm’s appeals and issues group. He majored in journalism and political science at UNC.

Kutrow wrote in the editorial, which carries a March 27, 1980, publication date:

“They were, we presume, clowning around for a photographer. Still, their callousness and insensitivity toward racism, the most deep-rooted problem confronting our society, is appalling … It may be argued, and rightly, that these pictures are indicative of the actions and attitudes of only a few individuals. Nevertheless, individuals make up organizations and organizations make up the UNC community. These photographs crystallized the racism that permeates this University in its most blatant and disturbing form.”

Former acting solicitor general and Duke University School of Law emeritus professor Walter Dellinger praised Kutrow in a tweet: “Good for Brad. Talk about a student editorial that ages well. This is it.”

In an interview Thursday, Kutrow said he had been thinking about the editorial he wrote  because of recent events, but was “amazed” to see it on social media.

“It was our role at the newspaper to call out problems on the campus,” he said, adding that “I don’t recall anyone leaping to the defense” of the fraternity after the editorial appeared. “It really was wrong and antithetical to our values at the university. Those photos needed to be called out.”

The emergence of the 1979 yearbook photos brought swift reactions Wednesday and Thursday from both the university and the Chi Phi fraternity. Bill Roper, interim UNC system president, said Thursday, “There’s a number of things about our past that we need to understand and deal with. That’s a horrific part of our past, one that I think has no place then or now in our university system.”

The fraternity on Wednesday tweeted, “We strongly denounce the behavior and sentiments displayed in these images. Bigotry is not welcome in our Fraternity.”

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