Va. first lady Pam Northam reportedly gave out cotton to black students during tour
Virginia first lady Pam Northam, who told her husband not to moonwalk during a news conference about wearing blackface, reportedly handed out cotton to black students on a tour of the governor’s mansion.
Last week, the first lady and her husband, Ralph Northam, hosted about 100 students who had worked as pages during the last Senate session, for a tour of their home, The Washington Post reported Wednesday.
Northam led the tour, rather than the typical docents, and, in the kitchen, reportedly asked her group of 20 to describe the slaves who had picked the cotton and tobacco she was holding.
“Mrs. Northam then asked these three pages (the only African-American pages in the program) if they could imagine what it must have been like to pick cotton all day,” Leah Dozier Walker, who oversees the Office of Equity and Community Engagement at the state Education Department, wrote in a Feb. 25 letter to lawmakers, acquired by the Post.
“I can not for the life of me understand why the first lady would single out the African American pages for this — or — why she would ask them such an insensitive question.”
The kitchen area where Northam handed out the props was originally used to house the slaves and servants who worked for Virginia governors, according to the National Park Service.
Walker’s daughter also wrote the first lady her own letter.
“I will give you the benefit of the doubt, because you gave it to some other pages,” she wrote. “But you followed this up by asking: ‘Can you imagine being an enslaved person, and having to pick this all day?’, which didn’t help the damage you had done.”
The Northams’ office said that she had handed out the cotton arbitrarily and had not singled out any students, according to the Post.
Sen. William M. Stanley Jr., R-Franklin, told the Post that his daughter had gotten the same tour and had not noticed only black students being picked.
In a statement sent by the governor’s spokeswoman, Northam said she regrets “that I have upset anyone.”
“As first lady, I have worked over the course of the last year to begin telling the full story of the Executive Mansion, which has mainly centered on Virginia’s governors,” she wrote.
“The Historic Kitchen should be a feature of Executive Mansion tours, and I believe it does a disservice to Virginians to omit the stories of the enslaved people who lived and worked there — that’s why I have been engaged in an effort to thoughtfully and honestly share this important story since I arrived in Richmond.”
She also said that she uses “a variety of artifacts and agricultural crops” to illustrate “a painful period of Virginia history.”
The Northams, as well as the rest of the upper echelons of Virginia politics, have found themselves in the midst of scandal recently.
Earlier this month, Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook with a photo of a person in blackface and one in Ku Klux Klan robes was circulated online. Northam apologized, then reversed course and said he wasn’t in the photo. He then admitted that he had worn blackface for a Michael Jackson dance contest.
His lieutenant governer, Justin Fairfax, has been accused of sexual assault by two women. He denied any misconduct.
Attorney General Mark Herring also admitted that he wore blackface in 1980 at a college party.