The Truth About Resurfaced Photo of Catholic Students Wearing Black Face Paint Amid Native American Controversy
Covington Catholic High School students wore black body paint at sporting events, and one user has noted that it looks disquietingly like racist caricature
Amid dueling accounts of a viral run-in between a group of Catholic students wearing pro-Trump apparel and Native American activists in Washington, D.C., last week, the boys’ school has drawn greater scrutiny.
A gay high school valedictorian in the same diocese told NBC News on Tuesday that Covington Catholic High School was “notorious for being a not-well-disciplined school.”
“It was only a matter of time that something this school community did would blow up to this degree, and I think they need to be held accountable,” said Christian Bales, who attended nearby Holy Cross High School, which like Covington Catholic is overseen by the Diocese of Covington.
More troubling for some, given the racial sensitivities in Friday’s incident in D.C., has been Covington’s history of students wearing black body and face paint, as reported on by The New York Times and the fact-checking website Snopes.
In short: Yes, Covington students did wear black paint on their bodies at sporting events, though a common defense has been that it was for school spirit — a “black out” for all supporters of one school — and not racially motivated, according to the Huffington Post.
According to the Times, footage of students in black paint was posted by Covington Catholic’s YouTube account but later removed following media inquiries.
Snopes, which sorted through the history of one such photo of the students in black paint, says it appears to date back to a November 2012 basketball game between Covington and a county school.
The photo shows Covington students yelling at or around an opposing player, who is black. Three boys in the photo are wearing black paint covering their chests and faces.
According to Snopes, users on a forum for prep schools said the paint was a school tradition but one user drew attention to the exaggeration a white student used for his facial features, disquietingly recalling racist caricature: “Looks like he might have been researching minstrelsy before the game.”
One basketball player who competed against Covington Catholic in 2015 said the students’ chants then had a racial overtone.
“They chanted ‘caramel, caramel,’ ” he told Inside Edition. “And as the only black kid on the floor, you knew who they were talking about.”
Asked about the black body paint on Fox News’ Fox & Friends on Wednesday, senior Sam Schroder said it was no longer allowed at school. But he contended that it was just a way of showing support.
“I just explain it as showing school spirit. We have many themes, like nerd, business, whiteout, blueout, blackout, as you’ve seen in the video,” he said. “Ever since I’ve gone to CovCath, we haven’t been able to wear black paint because of the video, but I know the kids meant nothing by it, it’s just showing school spirit.”
Last week’s incident has unusually hinged on clips recorded by witnesses at the time and later uploaded to social media. Amid the cascade of footage since Friday, discussion of what happened has become further muddied by arguments over the veracity of what is shown in each clip — if certain angles obscure context, if what is depicted is really what happened.
Other allegations of student misbehavior have surfaced in this debate about the video recordings. (Both the teen boy and the Native American elder in the middle of the conflict have spoken out, each disputing parts of the other’s account.)
One video circulated on Twitter as proof of Covington student misdeeds shows a boy saying, “It’s not rape if you enjoy it,” though another voice is soon heard saying, “He does not go to Covington.” The boy who made the rape comment is not wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, as the Covington students were last week in D.C., or any Covington apparel.
Another clip seems to show Covington students shouting at other pedestrians, including a girl. The boys in the video are wearing MAGA hats but the brief footage does not show what led up to or what followed the run-in.
Friday’s conflict first went viral on social media after short clips circulated that appeared to show the students surrounding and harassing 64-year-old Nathan Phillips, a Marine Corps veteran and elder of the Omaha tribe.
Longer video from Friday shows that Phillips had inserted himself in the situation. He stepped between the group of students, who were in D.C. to attend the anti-abortion March for Life rally, and a small group of Black Hebrew Israelites, who had been shouting obscenities at them and criticism of their MAGA hats in support of President Donald Trump.
Phillips told PEOPLE he walked toward the group of students, becoming surrounded by them, while playing a drum and singing in an effort to defuse the situation.
“I am seeing my America being torn down, being ripped apart, and it hurt my heart,” he said. “When I feel these kind of feelings, my first response is to turn to God and that’s what I did. I was witnessing this action between two groups of people and what they were doing to my country.”
Phillips came face-to-face with Covington junior Nick Sandmann, who stood without moving from him, at times smirking.
Around him other young people did mocking tomahawk chops, and Phillips claimed he heard chants of “build a wall,” which has been disputed.
Sandmann later said he was trying to remain “motionless and calm” and was smiling at Phillips to signal his good will.
Appearing on Today on Wednesday, Sandmann said he did not feel he needed to apologize but nonetheless wished the situation had been avoided.
“As far as standing there, I had every right to do so,” he said.
“We’re a Catholic school … they don’t tolerate racism, and none of my classmates are racist people,” he told Savannah Guthrie.
PEOPLE has been unable to reach church or school officials for comment; in previous statements they have said they are investigating last week’s conflict and considering a range of punishments, if any are needed.