Donor and former trustee Jennifer Townsend Crosthwaite among three alumnae in ’84 yearbook blackface photo

A photo from page 58 of the 1984 edition of La Encina, Occidental College’s yearbook, showing former board of trustees member Jenny Townsend Crosthwaite '84 and alumnae Wendy Gobar '84 and Michelle Walsh '84 posing in blackface. The caption reads, “L-R Jenny Townsend, Michelle Walsh, Wendy Gobar a.k.a Tito, Michael, and Jermain.”

This is a developing story. The Occidental will update this article as information becomes available. Last updated: 11:40 p.m., March 11, 2019.

Update: A second photograph, printed in a 1980 edition of La Encina, depicts donor Barry Crosthwaite ’80 and four other alumni with the caption “The Aryan Alliance.”

In a photograph printed in a 1984 edition of La Encina, Occidental College’s yearbook, former board of trustees member Jennifer Townsend Crosthwaite ’84 and alumnae Wendy Gobar ’84 and Michelle Walsh ’84 are shown wearing blackface while costumed as “Tito, Michael, and Jermain” of The Jackson 5. Townsend Crosthwaite first joined the college’s board in 2012, according to an article by Director of Communications and Community Relations Jim Tranquada. According to a campus-wide email letter sent March 8 that was signed by Board of Trustees Chair Susan H. Mallory ’76 and President Jonathan Veitch, Townsend Crosthwaite resigned from the board Feb. 21.

Townsend Crosthwaite and her husband, Barry Crosthwaite ’80, have pledged $1.5 million to fund the Townsend Crosthwaite Pool. The pool is part of the larger $17.5 million construction of the De Mandel Aquatic Center, a 30,000-square-foot athletics facility scheduled to open June 2019.

The March 8 letter from Mallory and Veitch linked to a letter to the community written by Townsend Crosthwaite in which she apologizes for her actions and describes her commitments to the college and its athletics programs. In a statement sent to The Occidental, Gobar also apologized for the blackface.

“I deeply regret the decision to appear in blackface as a student at Occidental 35 years ago,” Gobar said via email. “My friends and I were portraying the Jackson 5 at a talent show; at the time I was unaware and uneducated regarding the history of blackface and its social ramifications. Nevertheless, my actions were insensitive, disrespectful, and offensive, and for that I most sincerely apologize.”

Walsh echoed Gobar’s statement, apologizing and taking full responsibility for her decision to wear blackface.

“While there is nothing I can do to turn back time and reverse that action, I am optimistic that younger generations of Oxy students are better prepared to fight racism and prejudice in all of its forms,” Gobar said via email.

According to Tranquada, college administrators first learned of the photo February 2019 after it was discovered by staff in preparation for the Summer 2019 alumni reunion weekend. An unnamed alumnus also brought the photo to the college’s attention independent of the reunion weekend preparation. Senior administrative staff, faculty members and a student representative met in a closed-door meeting March 7 to discuss the college’s response to the photograph, according to an anonymous source who informed The Occidental of the meeting and its participants. The same source said college officials convened a meeting solely comprised of senior administrative staff about two weeks prior to the March 7 meeting.

Professor Regina Freer of the Politics department said that she attended two meetings to discuss the college’s response to these photographs and that she was first contacted about this issue by Veitch and Dean of the College Wendy Sternberg on Feb. 11. According to Freer, Veitch and Sternberg requested that Freer attend a meeting about a sensitive issue of institutional importance, which took place Feb. 19. Freer said that many attendees at this meeting expressed concern with the administration’s approach and advocated for informing the campus about this issue as soon as possible.

“Oxy is not unique in confronting such deeply problematic images and actions and this photo does not stand alone, rather it is part of a broader history of the place,” Freer said. “How we confront this history could be different, but I admit to having little faith this will be the case.”

Freer also attended the second meeting on March 7, where Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) President Jacques Lesure attended as the student representative.

“I find it embarrassing that the parties responsible for acting on these concerns have likely missed yet another opportunity to break a cycle of the institution’s day-late and dollar-short reactiveness to issues that Black students face,” Lesure said via Facebook. “I’m not surprised this happened in this way. I’m calling for full accountability on behalf of the College in making clear Crosthwaite’s impact and influence on the direction of the institution.”

Politics professor Thalia González was one of the faculty members invited to the March 7 meeting. She said she was excited for the college to engage in proactive transparency and was willing to invest in that effort.

“I went into this meeting hopeful that this will provide a greater lens by which we might move forward in the way the board behaves, the way that we talk about these things, the way that we expect students to then bear the burden of bringing [these issues] to people’s attention,” González said. “I left the meeting feeling very disappointed that we will not be embracing a sense of being honest, being radically transparent, and then moving forward with what this is.”

González said she was disappointed at the outcome of the meeting and felt it adjourned without a tangible plan. Meeting attendees were told to expect a follow-up email from senior administrative staff, according to González.

According to the anonymous source, students first discovered the photograph while working on a class project for a Spring 2014 Critical Theory & Social Justice (CTSJ) course, “Culture and Community,” taught by professor Donna Maeda. Freer said that members of the Feb. 19 meeting discussed how students had originally identified the blackface yearbook photograph in this CTSJ project.

As part of this project, students created a website documenting the history of equity and diversity at Occidental College. The photograph of Townsend Crosthwaite, Gobar and Walsh is featured on a page of the website showcasing excerpts from Occidental student publications in the 1980s. In the version of the photograph published on the class project’s website, the names of Townsend Crosthwaite, Gobar and Walsh are blurred out.

Nancy Nguyen ’14 was one of the students who participated in the class archiving project. She said that individual groups of students within the class were assigned year ranges and searched through archives of La Encina and The Occidental to scan entries relevant to the project’s theme.

“It’s been a while since the project, so I can’t remember what the process was in blurring out the names,” Nguyen said via email. “Ultimately the reasoning is unimportant, blurring out the names is complicit in protecting people from accountability of their public actions.”

According to the project webpage, Occidental’s Special Collections & College Archives provided the photograph for the class project. Assistant College Archivist Anne Mar said that she, Special Collections Librarian and Archivist Dale Ann Steiber, Maeda and the students of the CTSJ course had a discussion about whether to include the caption of the blackface yearbook photograph or not. According to Mar, they collectively decided not to include it because the purpose of the research was to provide evidence of the campus climate, and the image alone served that purpose without the names of the individuals.

Jennifer Townsend Crosthwaite ’84 and husband Barry Crosthwaite ’80 have pledged $1.5 million to fund the Townsend Crosthwaite Pool, which is set to open in June 2019 as a part of the larger De Mandel Aquatic Center. Photo courtesy of oxy.edu.

Both Townsend Crosthwaite and Gobar appear on the list of 2012–2013 Tiger Club board members. According to a statement from former athletic director Jaime Hoffman posted on the Oxy Athletics website, the Tiger Club is a committee of alumni donors responsible for raising 35 percent of the athletic department’s operating budget. Townsend Crosthwaite and Gobar are listed on the webpage as having made donations for women’s basketball and volleyball, respectively. According to Townsend Crosthwaite’s letter to the community, she was also the Tiger Club representative for women in sports.

As volleyball and water polo players respectively, Jennifer Townsend Crosthwaite and Barry Crosthwaite donated $1.5 million to the Townsend Crosthwaite pool, a $17.5 million project designed by Moule and Polyzoides architecture firm. Tranquada said the naming of the pool will be part of a conversation the Oxy community will have over the coming weeks.

Within the last month, several public figures have faced scrutiny after college yearbook photographs depicting them in blackface were discovered. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam acknowledged in late January that he was one of two students in a photograph depicting a student in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan costume. The photograph was printed in a 1984 yearbook page from Eastern Virginia Medical School. In the aftermath of Northam’s acknowledgement, Virginia’s Attorney General Mark R. Herring also admitted that he wore blackface as an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia in 1980.

González said she was concerned about the ramifications of naming a pool after individuals who perpetuate racial stereotypes.

“As someone who is a scholar of civil rights, I have a whole set of appreciations of what it means to think about having pools and public spaces with the names of individuals who are perpetuating racial tropes and racial stereotypes,” González said. “Literally last week, in my civil rights class, we were reading about cases about discrimination, race-based discrimination and public pools. That really hits home for me in a really particular way.”

ASOC released a statement via email addressing the photograph March 9.

“The dedication of this facility will require Occidental College to confront a challenging question of whether the name of the Pool will remain, and ASOC firmly believes in student participation within this decision.”

Freer said that the college archives reveal students resisting anti-blackness in the ’80s.

“There is evidence of resistance going back much further than that. And we have students today continuing that resistance,” Freer said. “Then, as now, they’ve been met with defensiveness and punishment rather than a recognition of the leadership they provide.”

Have a story tip for The Occidental? Send it in here.