Howard librarian details history of blackface, KKK hoods as symbols of racism, terrorism

Dr. Lopez Matthews, Jr. of Howard University. (ABC7)

Dr. Lopez Matthews, Jr. gets to experience African American history each day as he digitizes historic records at Howard University. He is a history specialist and digital production librarian.

“These kids are bobbing for apples, here in DC,” he said as he picked up a photo from the 1940s using white gloves.

Historic pictures can induce happiness or show difficult times.

“It’s why we need to always remember,” said Matthews.

Some difficult memories came to light on February 1, when a photo on Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s yearbook page showed two people in racist costumes. One person wore a Ku Klux Klan outfit while the other stood smiling, wearing blackface.

“I think they are both equally offensive because one is an example of the history of mocking and belittling of people of color and the other is a symbol of terror. Because that’s what it is. The KKK hood is a symbol of terror,” said Matthews.

Despite the jarring photo, many people of color said they are not surprised by the revelation.

“The blackface incidents are kind of bringing it to the surface that, ‘Oh, these things do happen,’” said Matthews. “Because some people like to act like, ‘Oh, racism, like poof, magically went away one day.’”

The photo on Northam’s yearbook page was from 1984, not 1924. But when compared to what life was like in the decades before the now-Governor was in medical school, the pictures are eerily similar.

“It’s all about mocking African Americans and showing them in the most derogatory light,” explained Matthews.

He pulled some photos from Howard University’s archives showing people in blackface.

“White people in blackface, black people in blackface. I mean, we have another right here,” he said, using his gloved hand to get another picture.

Matthews explained that if African Americans wanted to work in Hollywood, they had one option – become a caricature.

“One of the things that you have to remember is, the roles for black people were severely restricted,” said Matthews.

He does think the country is making progress but that there is still work to be done.

“Take it to schools, talk to the children, and explain to them why this is wrong.”

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