RICHMOND, VA — After a nearly four-month investigation, a law firm hired to determine whether Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam posed in blackface for a medical school yearbook photo can’t determine who was in the picture. The results of the independent investigation by the McGuireWoods firm were announced May 22 by Eastern Virginia Medical School.
Northam became a political pariah on Feb. 1 after a photo on Northam’s page in the 1984 EVMS student yearbook surfaced that showed two people, one dressed in blackface and the other in a white robe and hood. At first the Democratic governor said he was in the photo 35 years ago that a person wearing blackface and anorth wearing a KKK costume. He reversed course the next day, saying that it wasn’t him in the photo, while also saying he once had appeared in blackface during a dance contest, also 35 years ago.
Northam told investigators he doesn’t know how the offensive photo ended up on his yearbook page. The report found no one “with first-hand knowledge of an actual mistake on any page, including any personal page, within the 1984 yearbook” and no evidence that the photo was placed in error, according to the college. The report also identified 10 photographs depicting individuals in blackface based on the law firm’s review of all EVMS yearbooks.
Representatives from the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Virginia’s two U.S. Senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, along with Maryland politicians Gov. Larry Hogan (R-Md.) and U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), all called on Northam to “do the right thing” and resign.
But Northam appears to have weathered the political firestorm and protests, once again appearing at functions around the state. Black lawmakers and others have recently praised Northam for ending the suspension of driver’s licenses for drivers with unpaid court fines and costs, and a review into how public schools teach the nation’s racial history, WJLA reports.
The governor said May 22 in a statement that “I am not in the racist and offensive photo that appears under my name in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook.”
Northam said his initial apology to accept accountability for the picture’s placement on his yearbook page only caused confusion and pain, rather than helping to clarify the issue. (See Northam’s full statement below.)
Richard V. Homan, MD, president and provost of EVMS and Dean of the School of Medicine, said Wednesday that publication of the photos was a “failure of administrative oversight on the part of EVMS.
“Their publication was hurtful, particularly to the African-American community and to our campus community,” Dr. Homan said. “It should never have happened.”
News of the photo on the governor’s page triggered a review of yearbooks at other schools across the country that turned up hundreds of offensive photos. The scope of the problem is indicative of the unconscious and conscious bias and racism that continue to exist, Homan said in a statement.
Turmoil in Virginia’s political establishment grew after Attorney General Mark Herring said he wore blackface at a college party in 1980, all while Northam fought to keep his job following apologies and then denials that he had once worn the racially demeaning blackface in his college days.
A new and troubling twist to the state’s history of race and politics came when Herring, a Democrat, admitted that he, too, once wore blackface. In this case, he was a 19-year-old college undergraduate attending a party where he dressed as a favorite rap music artist. He said in a statement that he was ashamed of and haunted by the one-time act.
“What I am feeling in no way compares to the betrayal, the shock and the deep pain that Virginians of color may be feeling,” Herring wrote. “Where they have deserved to feel heard, respected, understood and honestly represented, I fear my actions may have contributed to them being forced to revisit and feel a historical pain that has never been allowed to become history.”
Click here for Herring’s full statement.
Adding to the political crisis, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax finds himself in a me-too moment that has complicated if not dashed his chances of succeeding Northam in the governor’s mansion. A woman has said she was sexually assaulted by Fairfax in 2004, and Fairfax has vehemently denied the claim.
The woman issued a statement identifying herself as Vanessa Tyson and refuted his assertion that the incident at the Democratic National Convention in Boston was consensual. Rather, she said consensual kissing turned into unwanted oral sex.
Here is the full text of Gov. Northam’s statement, released May 22:
“I have cooperated with Richard Cullen and his team over the course of their investigation, both by making myself available for interviews and by turning over the findings of my private inquiry into the matter. I am not in the racist and offensive photo that appears under my name in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook.
“That being said, I know and understand the events of early February and my response to them have caused hurt for many Virginians and for that, I am sorry. I felt it was important to take accountability for the photo’s presence on my page, but rather than providing clarity, I instead deepened pain and confusion.
“In visits with local leaders across the Commonwealth, I have engaged in frank and necessary dialogue on how I can best utilize the power of the governor’s office to enact meaningful progress on issues of equity and better focus our administration’s efforts for the remainder of my term. That conversation will continue, with ensuing action, and I am committed to working to build a better and more equitable Virginia for all who call it home.”