Photo surfaces of Cuyahoga County Health Commissioner in blackface

Updated: Aug. 4, 2020 at 5:55 PM EDT
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - 19 Investigates uncovered a top health official posed for a photo in racist blackface several years ago.

This—as he calls for racism to be recognized as a public health crisis in the middle of the pandemic.

Terry Allan, the Cuyahoga County Board of Health Commissioner, confirmed it was him in the photo wearing Blackface at a Halloween party in 1990.

He apologized and said since then he’s tried to do right throughout his career.

“I was young, I was dumb and I’m sorry that I did it,” Terry Allan said to 19 Investigates over the phone.

Terry Allan has been Cuyahoga County’s Health Commissioner for the past 16 years.

He has served in public health for more than three decades.

Right now he is dealing with possibly his biggest challenge yet, navigating the public through the coronavirus pandemic.

“This has been a time unlike any other in our lives,” he said at a Cuyahoga County Board of Health briefing on June 1.

“I’m personally honored to serve as part of this response team here at CCBH and I’m proud of the extraordinary work of our staff and our partners,” Allan said.

But a single photo may raise some questions about the top official you trust with your health.

The photo obtained by 19 Investigates was taken at a Halloween party in Dayton in 1990, according to our source.

Terry Allan, in his early 20s, was just a few years out of college.

He is pictured in the photo wearing Blackface paint and faux cornrows, dressed as Buckwheat from the TV show Little Rascals.

Photo surfaces of Cuyahoga County Health Commissioner in blackface
Photo surfaces of Cuyahoga County Health Commissioner in blackface

The Buckwheat character is widely considered a racist stereotype of African Americans.

Our source said Allan was the only person wearing Blackface.

The other people in the picture have been blurred because they’re private citizens.

We spoke to Allan about the photo over the phone Tuesday.

“I was very young, it was a long time ago. That it was clearly wrong. That since then—what I didn’t realize when I was younger is how offensive it is, and I have certainly come to understand that now. That that was very offensive to people, that my eyes have been opened in my work in public health since then,” Allan said.

“It’s completely unacceptable what I did then. I think that what I’ve done since then and tried to do in my work in public health is to focus on equity and to serve under-resourced communities. And recognize all the injustice,” he said.

This photo came to our attention at the same time as the nation grapples with racism after protests erupted across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a white police officer.

Stance against racism

On June 2, the Cuyahoga County Board of Health put out a statement, saying “we stand strongly against racism.”

It reads in part: “we recognize the new level of urgency for our agency and our community to act swiftly against racist violence and elevate racism as a significant health crisis.”

Cuyahoga County Board of Health wants to declare racism a public health crisis
Cuyahoga County Board of Health wants to declare racism a public health crisis((Source: CCBH))

Allan spoke on the grave dangers the stress of racism can cause people just a few days earlier at a press conference.

“It results in unnatural causes of death that are unfair and unjust and are disproportionate,” he said on May 29.

Allan also spoke about how COVID-19 disproportionately affects African Americans.

“What we’re seeing very poignant in the COVID-19 response is in particular higher rates of hospitalization in the intensive care unit time for folks in the black community,” he said.

19 Investigates asked Allan why the public, after seeing the photo, should still trust he is committed to eliminating institutional racism?

“As you mentioned, that was from 30 years ago, at least. And where I sit now was that as I have grown up and come to understand the inequities and what white privilege is, and understand talking to the African American colleagues and friends that I have at the health department, and others in the community, and going around neighborhood to neighborhood, as we have in our workaround lead poisoning prevention, around dealing with health inequities and healthy food access, a range of other injustices related to job opportunity, incarceration, disparities, that I’ve come to understand just how insensitive that was and what white privilege means. I’ve come to understand that a lot more clearly in the work that I do. And I have been working very hard at the health department to do what I can to best position us to make sure that there’s equal opportunity for everyone here,” Allan said.

Why now?

So why did our source come forward now, 30 years later with this photo?

This person said as health and racial inequality collide during the pandemic, “it seems necessary to hold those in power accountable for their part in institutional racism.”

Especially when in this case, our source pointed out, Allan is directly involved in rooting out racism in public health.

But, our source does not believe Allan is generally a racist person.

This photo, tucked away in a photo album for years, is seemingly the only blemish in a distinguished career.

“I think I’ve tried to do right, given the wrong I certainly did back then with that Halloween decision,” Allan said.

“I’ve been in public health for 30 years, and we are going to continue to try to do the right thing relative to saving lives. And that’s our intent as a health department. That’s our job,” he said.

Five members make up the Cuyahoga County Board of Health.

The board members appointed Terry Allan to serve as health commissioner.

They released the following statement after our story aired.

Apology from Terry Allan:

I would like to address an incident from my past - one that was borne out of ignorance and immaturity.

About 30 years ago, I attended a Halloween party in blackface makeup. At the time, I did not realize how my actions that night would be interpreted and how they could be hurtful to people I did not even know.

The origins of blackface harken back to the minstrel shows of the 19th century. White actors painted their faces and impersonated slaves or black people who were free.

The nature of those portrayals was not flattering and did more to further stereotypes than to negate them.

The takeaways from that period were that black people were inferior to whites and that it was socially acceptable to mock them on stage and belittle them as people.

Today, I am horrified by those truths and ashamed of myself for having any connection to the furtherance of those beliefs.

Confronting youthful mistakes and transgressions from our past often causes us embarrassment, regret and pain.

I am incredibly embarrassed about what I have done.

I apologize for my ignorance and immaturity and ask for forgiveness.

Since that time many years ago, I feel that my education and experience has brought me to a better place; a place of enlightenment and awareness that has moved me to become a part of the solution.

I have great appreciation for the people I have met over the past three decades who have been a part of my transformative journey from a foolish and immature young man to a person who believes in equity, inclusion and opportunity for all. I also have faith that my work record speaks to my true intent.

The community-based relationships that I have cultivated on behalf of our agency and still appreciate today are the result of a great deal of collaboration and trust. Trust among partners that we are headed in the right direction for the right reasons.

Trust that we are in this together because we want to see improved outcomes, primarily the elimination of racism and inequity in our society.

These beliefs are the foundation for the work we do every day at the Board of Health.

Our goals are to be open, non-judgmental and accommodating with all people. I have apologized to the Board of Health staff for the embarrassment I have brought to our agency.

Please know that my work, however blemished by this incident, is firmly rooted in our core belief system and always will be.

To the people of Cuyahoga County, I ask for your forgiveness. I fully understand that what I did was wrong. I only wish to own up to my mistake and accept the consequences that may result.

In summary, I realize the gravity of my actions.

They have served as a reminder of the unfortunate realities that African Americans still face to this day.

My hope is that one day, all Americans will be free from the stains of slavery, racial prejudice and unequal treatment.

Tomorrow, I will again go to work and do my part to bring those hopes closer to becoming a reality.

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