AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Georgia picker who found Ku Klux yearbook thought: 'This can't be true.'

The AJC story about Wesleyan College's historic links to the Ku Klux Klan published last week, which led to an apology by the school about it's racist history, started with a phone call to a man I hadn't spoken with in more than 15 years.

James Allen, a former Atlanta antiques dealer, is best known for his collection of lynching postcards and photographs that he published as a book in 1999 .  He placed the photos on exhibit in New York the next year, helping draw worldwide attention to America's history of racial violence.

I called Allen in February after writing a story about a police chief in Georgia who acknowledged his department's role in a 1946 lynching. In the course of our conversation, Allen told me about a peculiar yearbook from a Georgia women's college.

"My first thought was this can't be true, it's not authentic," Allen said. "A strong motivator (for collecting) is the evidence for what our country did is being suppressed and continues to be suppressed."

Allen, who is white, emailed me images of the yearbook in March and weeks later sent his aging, fragile copy of the yearbook by UPS.

The yearbook was the starting point of my reporting, which included interviews with current and former students who experienced some of these traditions while at Wesleyan. I spoke to faculty and administrators who made the school's archives available. The reporting revealed a legacy of overt racism that went far beyond the yearbook and included extreme hazing at Wesleyan that was passed down from class to class for much of the 20th century. The school perpetuated class names linked to the Klan and used racist props in its hazing such as nooses, hoods, blackface and effigies.

Since publishing the story last Thursday on myAJC.com and on Sunday's front page, the school has apologized for this troubling legacy and  said it must do better. School leaders, who said they had been researching this history the past couple years and had planned to issue a statement of acknowledgment later this fall, are communicating with students, alumnae and faculty about their plans to reconcile for this hurtful legacy.

Allen, for his part, said of the hundreds of objects he's collected related to America's racial history, he considers the Wesleyan yearbook one of his rarest finds. He said he's still surprised when he comes across artifacts that show how racism was woven into the fabric of the country.

"It's unapologetic," Allen said. "It shows this was everyday life for America. It's something they were not at all embarrassed about....To this day, every time I see a lynching postcard I still can't believe it."

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