The Collegian
Monday, May 20, 2024

Student in racist 1980 UR yearbook photo: It was a "pretty stupid idea"

<p>A photo of Michael Kizzie, '81, in the 1980 University of Richmond yearbook. An excerpt on the same page read “Kizzie ‘hangs’ around lodge.”&nbsp;</p>

A photo of Michael Kizzie, '81, in the 1980 University of Richmond yearbook. An excerpt on the same page read “Kizzie ‘hangs’ around lodge.” 

Editor's note: This article was updated to include information about Michael Kizzie's current occupation. 

In most cases, a picture of a man widely grinning with a drink in his hand is of no consequence. But in this one, an African American University of Richmond student loosely holds a noose around his neck as he is surrounded by others — unidentifiable due to the Ku Klux Klan outfits they are wearing. 

The photograph was one of four published on the Sigma Alpha Epsilon spread in the 1980 edition of UR’s yearbook, “The Web.” 

News and discussion of the photograph and yearbook spread erupted after a Feb. 6 tweet from Katy Evans, a Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter. The tweet attracted increasing attention amidst escalating state controversies: Both Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring have admitted to wearing blackface.

The student pictured, Michael Kizzie, was 20 or 21 years old at the time the picture was taken. 

“Kizzie ‘hangs’ around lodge,” one of the excerpts on the two-page spread reads — among other excerpts that Kizzie, who is now 59, found “rather crude and tasteless.” 

The photograph — wherein Kizzie appears to be enjoying himself — was taken at the SAE lodge on UR’s campus during the 1979-1980 school year, Kizzie’s junior year. 

But Kizzie, an American history major and college basketball scholar, said that there had been “absolutely no pressure” and that in retrospect, the decision to take the photograph had been a “pretty stupid idea.”

Moreover, Kizzie, ‘81, said he had no recollection of the event and that speaking to The Collegian was the first time he had been made aware of the photograph’s existence and controversy.

“I’m sure it was a night of probably overindulging in some alcohol,” the Richmond native said. “I was not pressured, I did not feel threatened. It was a frat party.” 

Speaking of the photograph, he said: “I don’t think that bothered anyone. That picture is a pretty dumb idea. But I don’t think that anyone took it seriously. I know I didn’t, because I wouldn’t have done it.”

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Despite noticing the UR student body’s “glaring” racial disparities and acknowledging familiarity with issues of race, Kizzie said he could “not pick out one racial experience, or even one bad racial experience,” at UR.

On the top right corner of the same spread is another picture, in which one person is wearing blackface — which Kizzie added was a “pretty dumb thing to do” — and another donned a faux American Indian headdress and face paint.

Kimya N. Dennis, '99, an associate professor of sociology and criminal studies at Salem College and a UR Carolina Triad alumnae liaison, tweeted that she had emailed UR to ask that the university release an official statement about the matter and to remove the yearbooks from being displayed on campus.

“Student organizations tend to have a faculty adviser and are you really trying to claim that the faculty and staff at schools, including the University of Richmond had no idea that these images were in these yearbooks?” Dennis said. “I want overall honesty.”

On Feb. 7, President Ronald A. Crutcher sent a university-wide email, referencing a “racist yearbook image” shared on social media. He described the photo as “repulsive to us” and that "the behavior and attitudes” represented by such images were “appalling and antithetical to the values” of UR.

It remains unclear exactly which photograph Crutcher was referring to on the yearbook page.

“No one should have to experience the pain caused by such vile images, or evidence of such behavior, either at the time the incident occurs or thereafter,” Crutcher said in the email. “Such images reflect a past that must be reconciled and understood."

Crutcher said that work still needed to be done regarding UR’s history and called attention to UR’s ongoing work to confront its past racism and discrimination, referencing projects such as the Commission on University History and Identity. 

Crutcher’s email was sent out in response to recent attention to the photograph. But the image, and criticism of it, have been present online for longer.

Shannon Kane, ‘18, said that she had tweeted at UR — in tweets that have since been deleted for professional reasons — when she had first learned of the photograph's existence back in April 2018, to which the university responded that the image was “horrific and offensive.” However, no university-wide email response was sent out at the time.

“.@urichmond: You’ve known about this racist yearbook for the past several months. @robert_ostrom and I brought the yearbook to your attention on here when it was in the Queally admission center,” Kane tweeted in response to the email on Feb. 7.

Junior Robert Ostrom said that despite Kizzie’s personal thoughts, the photograph still indicated a certain campus culture.

“I think the photo shows, even if he didn’t feel discriminated against, the university, at least at the time, fostered a culture which was comfortable with racist, at the very least, jokes, paraphernalia and fake lynchings, I guess,” Ostrom said.

The yearbook spread was also featured in an entry from “The Race and Racism at the University of Richmond Project,” an interdisciplinary initiative that seeks to uncover, document and contextualize UR and its leaders’ histories in regard to race, racism and discrimination, among other issues.

Irina Rogova, the project’s archivist, declined to comment for this article.

Dennis said she thought Kizzie’s response to the photo was a “safe” one.

“He cannot speak out in outrage because he was in that photo smiling,” Dennis said. “It’s still a disappointing photo and I’m sure he wants to move on with his life and I respect that. I don’t want his life altered in any way. But I think this is an example of how a lot of people are not accustomed to having these honest discussions and that’s what I want University of Richmond to know.” 

Kizzie, who now is an account executive for an insurance company in Silver Spring, Maryland, said that he was not going to blame nor accuse UR or SAE for the picture. And he could not speak for the other people in the picture, he said. He thought the photo was also not representative of white students' views on black students at UR at the time. He chose to point the finger at himself. 

Contact news writers Lindsay Emery and Arrman Kyaw at and 

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