In the fall of 1976, just after the United States celebrated its bicentennial and a young Citadel alum was elected mayor of Charleston on a platform of racial healing, 21 members of The Citadel’s Company T did something that continues to haunt them.

Few, if any, had an inkling that their informal senior group yearbook photo would live in infamy rather than as the joke they intended.

They certainly didn't think their photo would linger as proof that the public military college's fraught racial past wasn't far in the past after all, and they had no clue it would factor into the discussion as the school confronted that past head-on.

They also didn't appreciate that decades before impulsive social media posts became a thing, young people, including themselves, would make mistakes that they would struggle to live down.

When the 1977 Sphinx yearbooks came out, Page 138 showed most seniors in Tango company posing in full Ku Klux Klan garb while encircling their one African-American classmate, who wore a fancy suit and a rope around his neck.

Most everyone was smiling.

Citadel lynching theatrics

Page 138 of the 1977 Citadel yearbook show cadets from Tango Company dressed up as if doing a lynching. Copy Photo

'The group dynamic was strong'

That fall, seniors in other Citadel companies posed on a footbridge, inside local bars, on motorcycles, inside laundry sacks, even as bank robbers.

The commander of Company T called a meeting to discuss how it should pose, and the seniors spent about 15 to 20 minutes throwing out different ideas. None seemed to stick. The conversation slowed.

Then someone suggested the Klan idea, and it was settled.

One of the seniors, John Horlbeck, pictured at the lower left, can't remember anyone objecting at the time.

“Sadly, there was not a lot of substantive discussion or debate," he said recently. "I don’t recall any objections. It might have caught a few of us off guard. I don’t think any of us would have, at least I wouldn’t have predicted that particular theme going in, but that was the idea that stuck.”

Horlbeck, who grew up in Charleston, said the cadets were aware racism and the Ku Klux Klan were serious topics, “but we were caught up. We were seniors. The group dynamic was very strong.

“We were so comfortable with each other. Our bonds were so strong, looking back, I think we thought we could transcend this by who we are," he said. "We’re above these real world issues that happened in the past.

"In retrospect, that was probably not a good decision.”

'They're great guys'

The Citadel integrated its ranks in 1966, and a decade later, the school had only 10 African-American members in its Class of '77.

Preston Robinson of Company T, who was featured in the yearbook photo, was among them, as was Tony DeWitt, who rose to be the second-highest officer in another battalion, even though he declined to sing "Dixie" during football games (a practice that eventually was stopped in the 1990s).

DeWitt said because he and other black cadets were such a small minority on campus, they knew each other particularly well and talked quite a bit. He remembers them discussing the photo.

"We talked to Preston, and I guess he realized it wasn’t a good idea after all," DeWitt said. “We gave Preston some heat for it. We didn’t think it was in good taste. We knew there was some stigma attached to the school because of its history, but we were working to get beyond that. That was our goal as African-Americans there.”

DeWitt, a retired Army colonel now living in Virginia, said he realized quickly the photo threw back progress toward that goal, even if no malice was intended.

"The guys in the picture, I haven’t seen most of them in years, are great guys. I had classes with some of the guys. The guys are doing great in life," he said. "What the picture portrays, I didn’t see that in their hearts. I know the guys. I saw some of the them at the last reunion and had good chats. We just screwed up.”

'A real jokester'

The photo, like so many racially insensitive images from the past, stayed dormant for a while. It resurfaced very publicly in 1987, after five white cadets hazed a black cadet in part by leaving a charred paper cross in his room.

The News and Courier ran a story about Company T's Klan photo at that time, quoting then NAACP Chairman William Gibson calling it, "sick, sick, sick."

Harold Poston of Pamplico, a member of the company in the photo, defended it in his 1987 interview with the newspaper: "It was all in the spirit of good will," he said at the time. "There was nothing racist on our part, but it seems like it's being taken that way. It kind of upsets me because you take something and blow it out of proportion and this is what you get."

Richard Wieters, a member of the company who missed the photo, also came to the defense of his company cadets. "It was just a group picture," he said. "It was just showing togetherness. It was supposed to be a funny picture. There was nothing at all racist about that."

Reached this past week, Wieters said he did not want to talk about the photo, adding, "I had nothing to do with it."

Bart Daniel, a member of the Class of '77, eventually became a U.S. attorney in South Carolina, heading up the prosecution of 17 state lawmakers during Operation Lost Trust in 1991. He was in a different company, and he recently said he did not think about the controversial photo until the swirl of negative publicity around the 1987 hazing incident.

"It’s embarrassing to the school, that’s for sure," Daniel said. "When I saw it, I thought, 'This makes The Citadel look terrible.'"

The 1987 article also unearthed an uncomfortable truth about the photo: Robinson, the one with the noose around his neck, came up with the idea for the photo. Robinson was a football player whose easy-going nature had won him many friends at the school.

"He was a real jokester and a heck of a nice guy," Daniel said. "He wouldn't do anything against his will. He was a big old guy."

No one could have known this at the time, but as the years passed, Robinson would have the least opportunity to reflect on the photo or express any second thoughts. After leaving The Citadel, he moved back to his hometown of Richmond, where he died in 1984. He was 29.

'Not going anywhere'

Citadel spokesman Col. John Dorrian said he’s scratching his head why no one involved in publishing the 1977 yearbook spoke up about the Ku Klux Klan photo.

“I think at that time there was no real institutional understanding or sensitivity to the need to put a stop to this sort of thing," he said, "or at least it wasn’t active.”

It's certainly active today. The Citadel has formed a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council to promote a culture of inclusion and equity, and those serving on the council are well aware of how the old yearbook photos factor into their task.

Meanwhile, The Citadel recently was one of the 10 schools nationwide to receive a $30,000 grant from the Association of American Colleges and Universities for the creation of a Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Center.

And the school has been reviewing its yearbooks with members of the diversity council, and some of its early 20th century offensive images were used in a history class on black history last year.

1905 Citadel yearbook.jpg

The body language of a cadet and of "Uncle Jack" in a drawing from The Citadel's 1905 Sphinx yearbook was part of a discussion in a black history class last year. Copy photo

“We tell them about these because it’s part of the college’s history,” Dorrian said. “These photos aren’t going anywhere. These photos don’t have anything to do with the cadet life now.”

After a Navy career, Horlbeck has returned to the school as a tactical officer for Fourth Battalion and Tango Company, a role that involves, teaching, advising and counseling cadets. Since his return, some have found the photo and asked him about it. Some knew he was among the cadets in it; others did not.

Horlbeck said he tells them about the group dynamic and about his company's failure to discuss the concept in greater depth.

"If we had, we might have arrived at a better conclusion that this was not a smart idea," he said. "I'm not proud of it. I don't think any of my classmates who were involved are proud of it. ... It's not the smartest thing that any of us should have done, albeit at a tender age."

He said he uses the photo as a teaching moment, when suitable, particularly in small groups. "It's become an opportunity to reflect, reconsider, confront, all of that," he said, "very much an ongoing learning experience for some of us, especially those who live around Charleston."

He also warns younger cadets about the difficulty of walking back a photo once it's out there, particularly during the modern era of social media when images can go viral so quickly.

"In my time, it took 10 years for that photo to come to light," he said. "Now it might take 10 hours."

Virginia stirs the pot 

The 1977 photo already had made the news several times — even appearing in a 1997 "60 Minutes" piece, arguably the most visible place it could appear — long before this year's political turmoil in Virginia brought old yearbook photos to the forefront.

Both Virginia's Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring wore blackface as young men and have faced calls to resign recently as the images triggered a wrenching debate about race there.

At that time, The Citadel's 1977 photo was emailed out to the media yet again.

DeWitt, who currently lives in Williamsburg, Va., said one of his early thoughts during the state's recent turmoil soon drifted to the likelihood that it would resurrect the 1977 photo. And that made him a little frustrated about how cadets can be their own worst enemies, with one big mistake overshadowing more progressive strides.

"We’re just trying to move forward," he said. "I don’t agree with some things that happened in the past, even when I was there, but I matured and moved on and have a love for my alma mater."

As the Virginia controversy bubbled up, new Citadel President Gen. Glenn Walters went on offense, sending a letter to the school's community that acknowledged that The Citadel, too, was not immune to the damage such old images can cause.

"While these photos are not recent, when viewed, they cause a visceral reaction, and people are understandably upset," he said. "Like many institutions, The Citadel has learned a lot over the years about the damage such images can inflict.

"As painful as these images are, they are a part of the history of the college. We do not and will not shy away from discussing them because they are a reminder of what happens if members of our community stray from the core values of honor, duty and respect."

DeWitt praised Walter's handling of the situation, including a vow to add bookmarks in yearbooks with offensive images.

"They’ve embraced a dialogue with the black community about all this, and together we can move forward and make it a little better,” DeWitt said. "It's not perfect, but we're getting better."

Daniel agreed that Walters made the right move: "You can’t really run from the past. You have to just accept it. If you made a mistake, you made a mistake."

blackface horz Citadel 1919 Sphinx yearbook.jpg

After racially charged images in Citadel yearbooks — this one from the 1919 Sphinx — have come to light, local civil rights leader Elder James Johnson of the National Action Network met with Citadel President Gen. Glenn M. Walters on Monday, Feb. 11, 2019.

Shortly after Walters sent that letter, he met with representatives of the National Action Network, who sought the meeting because they were concerned about racist images in the yearbook. They cited several blackface drawings from the 1919 Sphinx, not the more recent photos.

They said they were pleased to learn Walters was taking the old images seriously and had a plan.

Deal with it

In one sense, The Citadel's 1977 Klan photo is simply one of dozens, possibly hundreds and even thousands, seeing new scrutiny as society's views on racial sensitivity continue to shift. And it's causing large numbers to deny, explain and possibly wish the things would just go away.

On Monday, former Charleston County GOP Chair John Steinberger said a caption on a 1982 blackface photo in the University of South Carolina's misidentified him. Steinberger said he was in the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity but was not one of its six brothers captured at a "Plantation Party."

"I was a member of the fraternity and back in that time we had a lot of theme parties that were foolish," he said. "That type of activity was common in the 1970s and '80s."

He said he confirmed with his college friends that he was mistakenly named but declined to name of the person he believes is in the photo because he did not want that person to be "slimed."

"There is nobody in that photo that had ill will towards anyone," he added.

More than a year before the Virginia photo surfaced, Citadel archivist Tessa Updike reviewed every Citadel yearbook since 1900 to flag any content that might be racially or sexually offensive. When they found something, they marked it with a Post-it note.

"We flipped through every page. Pretty much every yearbook had a flag in it," she said. Examples included cartoon drawings of African-Americans to pictures of The Citadel's group "The Cadet Minstrels" to pictures with Nazi flags to images of cadets dressed in Ku Klux Klan garb as recently as 1982.

"I think the worst image I have seen is the one from 1977," she said.

She said a diverse group will assemble soon to do another review of the yearbooks with fresh eyes to ensure that the discussion continues.

Meanwhile, the ultimate legacy of the 1977 photo might be less about what it says of race relations at The Citadel at any particularly moment in time and more about the importance of its main job: educating and developing leadership skills and values in youth.

"It's a good lesson of doing something without thinking, particularly at a young age," Horlbeck said. "At that age, there was no one of us in that room that could look ahead 42 years and say, 'How's this going to look?'"

Andrew Brown contributed to this report.

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Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.