Sept. 21, 2016: Burlington Free Press
‘UVM paper up for national award’
Free press staff writer Cory Dawson wrote about our story’s nomination for ACP’s diversity story of the year. In addition to being the author of this story, Cory is also my former editor and one of the people who inspired me to pursue journalism. It was an honor to be interviewed by such an incredible journalist. Below is a quote from an interview he did with me on the impact of the story, followed by his coverage:
“It was a solemn and thoughtful day for campus. You felt it, there was nobody who hadn’t heard about it on campus. There was this heaviness.”
Below is the story as printed by Burlington Free Press on Sept. 21, 2016:
“For the second year in a row, student journalists at the University of Vermont are up for a national award — this time for a retrospective on the Kake Walk, a popular UVM tradition that for decades brought the campus together to watch students dress up and dance, in blackface.
The Associated Collegiate Press, a national student journalism association, tapped reporters from the Vermont Cynic last week for a Diversity Story of the Year award. Their story, Kake Walk: Alumni, faculty and students reflect on 73-year tradition, was the first in a three part series examining race relations at UVM. Last year, Cynic reporters won the second place prize for News Story of the Year after submitting a piece on university dining contractor Sodexo’s labor practices.
“It was an all encompassing event, not only on campus but in Burlington. Everyone was part of this event,” said Kelsey Neubauer, a junior and one of the reporters on the Cynic story.
The Kake Walk was part of UVM culture since the early 1890s. The event originated as a competition among slaves and the winners were awarded cake. Later, the event became more elaborate, incorporating costume, music and skits. The Cynic advertised the Kake Walk with colorful, full page prints every year.
The beginning of the end for the Kake Walk started in 1954 when an entire fraternity, Phi Sigma Delta, refused to wear blackface in protest, according to a UVM special collections website with pages of documents on the Kake Walk. The last Kake Walk was in 1969, but some campus groups were intent on bringing the event back.
Interviews with UVM alumni who were involved with the Kake Walk drive the Cynic story. Garrison Nelson, a UVM political science professor and a judge at the last Kake Walk in 1969, told the Cynic that there was a lot of speculation about a Kake Walk resurgence. That ended when Lattie Coor, president of UVM from 1976 to 1989 gave a clear message to campus, he told the Cynic in a video interview.
“When we came to him about it he said, look, there are three K’s in Kake Walk, like the Klu Klux Klan and we’re not going to do it,” Nelson said in the video.
Many students had little or broken knowledge of the Kake Walk before the Cynic story, said Hannah Kearns, editor-in-chief of the Cynic.
“Until the story idea was brought up to me I wasn’t completely aware of the tradition,” Kearns said.
The story was uniquely sensitive, Kearns said. Before going to print, Kearns reached out the Vice Provost for Student Affairs Annie Stevens and student groups like the Black Student Union and the African, Latino(a), Asian, and Native American student center, to let them know of the coming story and soliciting their reaction.
“We wanted them to know this was something we were going to publish, just because this piece and the two that followed could have been very triggering for some people,” Kearns said.
After the story was printed and distributed in late Feb. 2016, Neubauer said the campus was buzzing. Students huddled around copies of the Cynic. Professors read the article aloud in class.
“It was a solemn and thoughtful day for campus. You felt it, there was nobody who hadn’t heard about it on campus. There was this heaviness,” Neubauer said.
Finalists for the Diversity Story of the Year include the Cynic entry and nine other papers. Publications from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, UNC Chapel Hill and Northwestern University are all finalists in the same category. The awards will be distributed next month at the annual Associated Collegiate Press convention in Washington D.C.
“Of course I’m happy about being nominated for such a prestigious award,” Neubauer said. “But it’s still a weird feeling. This article should be for the whole campus.”
Disclosure: Cory Dawson was editor-in-chief of the Vermont Cynic from Nov. 2014 to Nov, 2015.