The Vassar College archive is a complicated and sometimes disturbing site of inquiry. In 2017, as College librarians began to digitize images from the Wolven Glass Plate Negative Collection, alarming aspects of the College’s history emerged in graphic ways.

The Wolven Glass Plate Negative Collection is a collection of about 3500 photos taken between 1897 and 1944 from a wide variety of social settings at Vassar, including Founder’s Day. Dozens of these images were discovered to include scenes in which Vassar College community members—students and faculty alike—dressed in racist, xenophobic, or otherwise harmful ways. These types of racial masquerade took several forms, including wearing blackface, redface, and yellowface, as well as costumes meant to represent stereotypes of the Romani people.

The existence of these troubling images within the Wolven Collection raises crucial questions about the ways in which racism is embedded in the College’s institutional history and culture. One of the first attempts to wrestle with and confront the legacy and meaning of these images from the Wolven Collection was an Intensive course taught in the Fall 2022 entitled, “Facing the Vassar College Archive,” co-taught by College librarians, Debra Bucher and Melanie Maksin, and Professor Jonathon Kahn. After exploring readings on the history of blackface and a difficult set of ethical questions around how or whether college and university libraries make available troubling materials from their archives, the students embarked upon individual research projects of their own about the Wolven Collection.

...each of these students went through their own processes of figuring out how to analyze, contextualize, and ask difficult ethical questions about the disturbing images they encountered.

In the fall of 2023, three students from this class, Edward Welch Morgan, Tatiana Wifall, and Sophia Greene, agreed to expand, develop, and refine their research papers through an independent study with Professor Kahn. Each of their projects is distinct. Mr. Welch Morgan’s interrogates the practice of white Vassar women wearing blackface at the turn of the century; Ms. Wifall’s examines the practices of “tree ceremonies” at Vassar and the way a seeming innocuous practice relies on colonizing framings of Native Americans; and Ms. Greene seeks out the linkages between the impulse to commemorate Vassar’s original founder, Matthew Vassar, and the prevalence of racial masquerade performances on Founder’s Day, the annual day celebrating his legacy.

To a person, each of these students went through their own processes of figuring out how to analyze, contextualize, and ask difficult ethical questions about the disturbing images they encountered and, more broadly, about what these images say about Vassar College’s past, present, and future. Their work represents their considered efforts to grapple with the complex nest of social, political, and cultural forces that shaped and circumscribed the first hundred years of a Vassar education. Moreover, their work invites, even demands, us today to ask related questions about the social, political, and cultural forces that today shape a Vassar education. In this, their work is future-focused, asking us all to consider the way critically analyzing our college’s particular past can help imagine a more just and equitable vision of a Vassar education.