Confronting Kake Walk
By Lynda Majarian Article published January 30, 2004
A new exhibit at Bailey/Howe library puts a controversial aspect of the university’s history into stark perspective. “UVM's Past: The Legacy of Kake Walk” may shock those who don’t know much about the once-popular annual campus event, abolished in 1969, and will frame it in a new fashion for those who do.
The exhibit documents all facets of the 80-year practice, which was based on blackface minstrel shows. Through costumes, songs, skits and dance, Kake Walk perpetuated the “Magnolia Myth,” or the idea that blacks were inferior people who liked being “taken care of” and thought slavery was just fine. Exhibit material includes old issues of the Vermont Cynic, yellowing Free Press editorials, photographs of costumed performers, posters and national magazine coverage.
“And that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” says Connell Gallagher, director of the library’s research collections. He and Sylvia Bugbee, library reference specialist, used just a fraction of archival materials and contributions from alumni to create the exhibit, which also encompasses more recent campus events toward multiculturalism, such as the student occupation of the president’s office in 1988 to demand more diversity among students, faculty and courses. The presentation, which has been up for about a week, may be viewed in the library lobby throughout February, which is Black History Month.
Willi Coleman, vice provost for multicultural affairs, was one of the people involved in the exhibit’s planning, and suggested focusing the display on UVM. “Even though this part of our history may make us uncomfortable, it completes the picture of the university as a community,” she says. “Part of our job in educating students is to introduce them to difficult subjects — that’s how we learn.” Assistant Professor of English Emily Bernard, for example, plans to incorporate the exhibit and its information into one of her classes.
“I really commend Connell Gallagher and Mara Saule, dean of libraries, for taking on this risky endeavor,” Coleman says. “It was courageous of them, and benefits all of us.”
President Daniel Mark Fogel has visited the exhibit and read every word in the displays. Admissions tour guides, at the urging of Don Honeman, director of admissions and financial aid, have become familiar with the display and are prepared to answer questions posed by prospective students and parents.
The exhibit reveals Kake Walk as an enormously popular winter event that not only captivated the campus, but drew community interest and sponsors, as well as national media attention in its later years. “Ours was the last university-sanctioned event of its type,” says Coleman, noting that similar events were, at one time, hosted by fraternities on many college campuses.
“Students of color will have two opposite reactions to the display,” Coleman predicts, “and I support both of them. Some will say, ‘Why are we doing this?’ and others will look at it as an opportunity to ask questions about race and racism in Vermont.”
How could UVM be the first university in the nation to induct an African-American into Phi Beta Kappa — George Washington Henderson, in 1877 — and just a few years later begin perpetuating a racist ritual? Partly the practice was a reflection of attitudes throughout Vermont, the nation’s whitest state. Kake Walk was also developed and sustained in the context of a national culture that supported touring blackface troupes that visited most U.S. cities or towns.
The period of Kake Walk’s founding at UVM (1888-93) witnessed the demise of black suffrage in the south and the deterioration of the image of African-Americans in U.S. popular culture, a practice that continued into the 20th century as blacks were banished from major league sports and depicted on inane television programs as happy-go-lucky simpletons.
While participants may not have thought of Kake Walk as racist, argues James Loewen, professor emeritus of sociology, in The University of Vermont: the First 200 Years, “Nonetheless Kake Walk was culturally racist to its core.” White cultural racism, as Loewen defines it, “is the tendency for whites to define the images of ‘others.’” In this case, “the others” were depicted with exaggerated, unflattering physical features and demeaning character traits.
The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, growing opposition to the Vietnam War, counterculture and the burgeoning women’s movement helped the campus community recognize Kake Walk to be an anachronism. The Greek system on campus, which had always organized and primarily performed at the event, and students active in campus affairs led efforts to abolish it. However, this was not accomplished without strong opposition by some campus factions. The termination, consequently, came in stages. Kake Walk was whittled down in scale and combined with other entertainment, was changed to whiteface and then light green, and then, mysteriously, to a dark green indistinguishable from black before its demise. Later, efforts were made, unsuccessfully, to resurrect the event.
The history is troubling, but as hate crimes, hate speech and unsanctioned blackface events still crop up on college campuses, it remains relevant — especially if documenting Kake Walk leads to productive conversations.
“I don’t think we should bury our history,” says Gallagher. “We need to put the past out there for discussion.”
Larry McCrorey, professor emeritus of molecular physiology and biophysics and former dean of the School of Allied Health, was among the most vocal opponents of Kake Walk. He will speak on “The History of Racism at UVM: the Vermont Paradox,” on Feb. 19 at 4 p.m. in the McCrorey Gallery of Multicultural Art, Bailey/Howe library.