By Linda Cicoira — Eastern Shore of Virginia residents — along with the rest of the state — were taken on a wild ride by Gov. Ralph Northam and other top-ranking Democrats this week. It started last Friday with the discovery of a circa 1984 racist photograph that appeared on Northam’s Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS) yearbook, had the governor admitting he was in that photo, apologizing, then doing an about-face and saying he was not in the photos as calls for his resignation mounted.
As Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax began to look like the heir apparent, an allegation of sexual misconduct surfaced from the same conservative website that released the Northam photo. Then Monday, with Northam still in office and the Fairfax matter unresolved, Attorney General Mark Herring, who had called for Northam’s resignation and would be next in line for governor after Fairfax, said he, too, dressed in blackface while an undergrad at the University of Virginia.
Shore residents were appalled at the racist photo that appeared on Northam’s page. The picture shows two people, both were posing and disguised, one was in blackface, the other wore the traditional costume of the Ku Klux Klan, with a hood covering the face. And while some are asking for Northam’s resignation, there are plenty of Shore residents who have known the governor for years and don’t believe he is a racist.
Local folks, like those in the rest of the state and country, are having a hard time believing the governor’s explanation. First, he apologized for hurting his constituents with the display of hate. He blamed the era for his actions. And, he acknowledged he was in the photo.
Hours later, he recanted saying he was not in the photograph, had never seen it before the previous day, that it was a mistake made by the yearbook staff, but that in the same year he won a Michael Jackson dance contest in San Antonio, Texas, in which he wore the distinctive shoes and glove of the entertainer and put black shoe polish on each cheek.
He seemed to be ready to prove his words by dancing the moonwalk if only his wife hadn’t said it wasn’t the appropriate time or place.
When the yearbook photograph began spreading across the internet Friday, Northam, a Democrat, who grew up in the Onancock area, said, “Earlier today, a website published a photograph of me from my 1984 medical school yearbook in a costume that is clearly racist and offensive. I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now.”
It was unclear which person in the photo was Northam, then a med student.
“This behavior is not in keeping with who I am today and the values I have fought for throughout my career in the military, in medicine, and in public service,” he continued. “But I want to be clear, I understand how this decision shakes Virginians’ faith in that commitment. I recognize that it will take time and serious effort to heal the damage this conduct has caused. I am ready to do that important work. The first step is to offer my sincerest apology and to state my absolute commitment to living up to the expectations Virginians set for me when they elected me to be their governor.”
Then the next day, he denied a connection. “I am not in that photograph,” Northam said at a press conference. “It was horrific. The fact that it was on my page, it was unacceptable. Yesterday, I took responsibility for the content that appeared on my page.” Northam said while he submitted the other photographs that appeared on the page, he was not involved in preparing the yearbook and did not buy a copy, He was in rotation in the military while in medical school and was not in Virginia at the time the yearbook was issued. He said Friday was the first time he had seen the photograph. “I did not wear that costume or attend that party. It is disgusting, racist and (was) my responsibility to recognize and prevent it from being published,” Northam continued. When a reporter asked Northam if he could still do the moonwalk –- in a way that suggested the governor should dance for those at the press conference – it appeared that he would do so but then echoed his wife’s sentiment that he could “in appropriate circumstance.”
“All I can do is what I’ve always done, is to be honest … I have prayed about this and I will continue to pray.” The pediatric neurologist said as a physician, he has taken care of thousands of people. “I treat everyone the same way. No one has ever thought or accused me of being racist. … No way I have ever been in the KKK uniform,” he later added.
Some local residents are very hurt and think he should step down from the top post of state government. Others have been quick to forgive and want to move forward. Many are outraged at his stand on abortion and were ready to throw him out before the scandal surfaced. There are those who had so much faith in Northam, the seemly shining Kennedy of the future, that they feel kind of sick about it all.
Politicians from both parties, including both U.S. senators from Virginia and the state’s attorney general, have called for his resignation; no one from his staff has resigned but they are reported to be “tense.” Days after denouncing Northam, Attorney General Mark Herring reportedly admitted to putting on blackface in college during the same era. Herring said in a statement that he wore makeup and a wig to look like a black rapper during a party at University of Virginia. He was 19.
Northam, a 59-year-old Virginia Military Institute graduate and former U.S. Army Medical Corps officer, has said he will not quit — he still has work to do, his term doesn’t expire until 2022, and he doesn’t want to go down in history as a racist. This is a man who belongs to an Eastern Shore church with a majority of black parishioners.
At a press conference Saturday, Northam said he did not attend the party where the photo was taken.
Northam’s former medical school roommate, Rob Marsh, contradicted him in a statement he made to the Washington Examiner. Marsh said he was co-chairman of the social committee sponsoring the Halloween party that year. “I know what he was wearing exactly,” Marsh said, noting that Northam had dressed up as an attorney. “Ralph comes out and I remember he was dressed in a three-piece suit and he had a briefcase.”
Locally, the verdict appears to be out on Northam. His minister, the Rev. Kelvin Jones, is standing by the governor whom he told the Eastern Shore Post he met prior to Northam’s Senate days. “We actually met when he was at the Franktown Medical Center seeing children there,” Jones said. “We talked and we talked and we continued to be friends. Eventually, I became his pastor … After meeting each other, we both have a mutual respect and admiration for each other as individuals.”
“If the stuff we did at 25 were brought back up today, how many of us would be unemployed?” Jones asked. “My theories and feelings are I stand with him. I refuse to allow or would want my actions at 25 to define the rest of my life. Those actions do not align with who I am. I preach every Sunday that people ought to be given another chance. Everybody wants another chance, but we fail in wanting to give it to other people.”
Jones said when Northam arrived at First Baptist Church in Capeville last Sunday, “He was in a place of hope, healing and a place that loves him … do you abandon me because I hit some bumps in the road?” the minister said.
Jones, a former Northampton deputy, is now a community leader who has been reaching out and offering prayer and sermons to people for more than 30 years. He started around the time the photograph in question was printed.
Nicknames have surfaced for Northam as well. “Goose” was a name he was called when his voice was changing, he said at the press conference. But reporters were more interested in the “coonman” title that was reportedly in his VMI yearbook. Northam said there were upperclassmen that called him that name but he never knew why.
Terry Payne, an Accomack deputy and retired firefighter, went to high school with Northam, rode the bus with him, then rode with him to school in his dad’s pickup. “I grew up near him. I knew his family well, ate dinner at his house, and still keep in touch. Never saw anything like that. Even growing up he was someone you wanted to be like. Never heard anything like that. Never saw anything like that,” Payne continued. “He’s a good man. That’s not who he was and it’s not who he is.”
Republican Party leaders from the Shore are among those who have called for Northam’s resignation. Accomack Republican Party Chairman Brian Langley and Northampton Republican Chairman Rob Stubbs said they want Northam to resign and called on Shore leaders in the Democratic Party to do the same.
“We call on the governor to take the appropriate steps and resign. He has now released a statement that has admitted his mistakes and should do the right thing and resign as governor. Hearing his words … about infanticide and then seeing the pictures and nicknames from his past that has recently surfaced today as reported in national media, he is not who he has tried to portray himself to be, nor is he who the Eastern Shore wants representing us … racism and discrimination have no place in our society.”
Leaders from the Virginia Education Association also called for Northam to step down. Jim Livingston, president of that group, and James Fedderman, VEA vice president and an Eastern Shore native, joined Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, in calling for Northam’s resignation Saturday.
“There is no place for … racist actions. Both NEA and VEA strongly condemn them. This goes beyond political affiliation. We must set a better example for our students. The public must have trust and confidence that their elected officials will fight for them, and that trust has been irreparably damaged. Ralph Northam should resign.”
Frank Moore, a former president of the Accomack Democratic Party, said on Facebook, “I spent days with Ralph knocking on doors when he ran for the Virginia Senate. I witnessed first hand how he interacted with folks from all walks of life and a variety of race and ethnicities. At no time did I ever see or hear him say or do anything that could be construed as racist, elitist, misogynistic, etc. However, let’s face it, even in 1984, I moved here in 1981, and still today, there’s a racist streak in the culture here on the Shore, though it’s somewhat sub rosa. I suspect the culture at VMI and EVMS in 1984, being populated predominantly with privileged white males from prominent families, still had elements of racism prevalent, probably not antagonistic racism, but more a subconscious easiness with being a privileged white dude. That probably led to an insensitivity/unawareness of how the portrayals in the yearbook would be perceived. The fact that Ralph thought it could have been him in the picture, indicates it was something he may have done, on more than one occasion. So, while the Ralph I knocked doors with is not the Ralph in that picture or the Ralph that put blackface on to do a Michael Jackson moonwalk in a dance concert, it is a Ralph that apparently existed at one time.”
The Eastern Shore Post asked on its Facebook site what people think about the issue and here’s what they said.
“People change and I, who voted for him, believe him, and am praying for him,” wrote Leisa Williams.
“He was in college and knew right from wrong,” wrote Danye Cropper.
“I know no one who doesn’t have skeletons in their closets,” wrote Kathryn Kennedy.
Ann Kaplan wrote, “This is a serious issue and one doesn’t change their belief systems that easily. They just learn to be more polished and politically correct. He also admitted, then lied to save his job. He needs to resign. No disrespect to him or his accomplishments but his past is a measure of his beliefs.”
“Why did he apologize?” asked Dona Danizer, an active local Republican Party member. “Why did he the following day retract that it was him in the photo on his page in the yearbook? Why did he remove the other half of the photo that had LG candidate Justin Fairfax in his campaign flyer? Why did he refuse to shake EW Bishop Jackson’s hand, his LG GOP opponent? This week has been hideous for our commonwealth. Yet the worse event was his backing HB2491, the late-term abortion bill. Thank God it failed, just like Gov. Northam has failed his party and constituents.”
“I think he should get a pass on the blackface issue,” wrote Joe Paschall. “But no pass on the abortion issue. We’re fighting the wrong battle.”
Danye Cropper came back at that comment. “Blackface is a mockery to all the black people who voted for him,” she said.
Shirl Dix also commented on Paschall’s words. “He gets no pass on the blackface issue. It’s unacceptable and inexcusable … I was one of the black people who voted for him and I find it deeply offensive.”
“And then to say it was hard to get shoe polish off, guess he did it more than twice. Disgrace to Virginians,” wrote Kathy Thornton.
Many respondents wanted to worry about other issues.
“Nobody cares how he dresses up, he still kills newborn babies,” wrote Dan Thompson.
“Let’s … watch him moonwalk right out of office,” wrote Bob Berry.
“Needs to go asap,” wrote Linda Surran Russell. “He is a living example of what everyone thinks we are all like on the ESVA from the terrible position he takes on abortion.”
“It is sad that he makes the Eastern Shore sound like it was OK to do that in ’84,” said Debbie Rodgers. “I have not ever known this type of behavior to be OK.”
“Considering the ads he ran against his opponent when he was elected, no pass,” wrote Warren Hardy. “Yes, I would like to see him moonwalk — on the moon.”
“Old news to distract from more important issues,” said James Smith.
“So I guess no one has a past,” wrote Tanya Taylor. “Take the focus off of the present and the future, to discuss things of the past. I don’t believe that this is real. Why would he join First Baptist Church, a predominately black church, and be racist, doesn’t make any sense.”
“I am as Republican as they come,” wrote Martha Sodat Staples. “But, something that has happened 30 years ago? Get real. It is done and over with … people do stupid things all the time when you are 16, 24, or older. I venture to say some of you demanding for him to resign have go(ne) way overboard and would never want to be exposed to what you’ve done. Let him do his job, but by God do something about full term abortions. That’s where the whole fight needs to be. You people have lost sight of the battle.”
Carla Savage-Wells, who has written columns for the Post, did an interview on national news and stood up for Northam, who she went to school with in her youth. “Ralph’s a strong person, but no, he must not go. Only he knows what’s too much. He’s had so many people to say they have not seen a racist bone in his body. I believe in the honor in Ralph that says if I quit now, I am a racist for life … He was so horrified in seeing that picture, this is my take on it, that he felt compelled to apologize … Anybody who is 45 and has a mortgage knows that 25 is not grown.”
“Should we also judge all those who have lawn jockeys in their yards?” asked Windy Grace Mason. “It’s easy for people to judge others without looking into the mirrors of their own souls/their own yards. Just my two cents, I’m not saying that I condone Gov. Northam’s actions by any means. I’m just saying that the pot often calls the kettle black as I’m seeing across Facebook, on this particular topic.”