Probe of Blackface Photo in Governor’s Yearbook Finds No Answers

This image shows a page of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 yearbook from Eastern Virginia Medical School. The page shows a picture, at right, of a person in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe next to different pictures of the governor.

NORFOLK, Va. (CN) – An independent investigation ordered by Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s alma mater could not determine whether Northam was pictured in a 1984 yearbook photo showing someone in blackface next to a person in a Ku Klux Klan robe, according to a report released Wednesday.

The investigation was undertaken by Richmond-based law firm McGuireWoods at the direction of Eastern Virginia Medical School and found that the evidence was inconclusive as to whether the Democratic governor was one of the people in the photo that ended up on his college yearbook page.

“While we have identified no information that the photograph was placed on Governor Northam’s personal page in error or by any other means not at his direction, we could not conclusively determine the origin of the photograph,” McGuireWoods attorney Richard Cullen, who led the investigation, wrote in the 55-page report.

Richard Homan, president of Eastern Virginia Medical School, said in a statement on the school’s website that the outside investigation was needed to “maintain the public’s trust and ensure an independent and objective assessment of the past” after the yearbook photo came to light in February.

“Their publication was hurtful, particularly to the African-American community and to our campus community,” Homan continued, saying it will be remembered as a failure of administrative oversight. “It should never have happened.”

In a statement Wednesday, Northam said he fully cooperated with the independent investigation and continued to claim he was not featured in the controversial photo. 

“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,” he said, referencing conflicting statements he made at the time. “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.”

The governor also promised to continue to work to improve his relationship with diverse communities around the state. 

“I am committed to working to build a better and more equitable Virginia for all who call it home,” Northam said. 

Wednesday’s report points to Northam’s “inconsistent” statements after the photo was released.

He first said he was one of the people in the photo, without specifying which one, but then reversed course the next day and said he was sure he was not in the photo.

He later admitted to “darkening” his face to impersonate Michael Jackson in a dance contest. He declined a reporter’s offer to moonwalk during the February press conference where he changed his response.  

“No individual that we interviewed has told us from personal knowledge that the governor is in the photograph, and no individual with knowledge has come forward to us to report that the governor is in the photograph,” the McGuireWoods report states.

Northam’s scandal was one of three that rocked Virginia’s executive offices – all held by Democrats – this year.

Shortly after the governor’s yearbook photo was released, Attorney General Mark Herring also admitted to wearing blackface in college for a talent show. No photo has emerged of that incident and Herring’s popularity has managed to stay consistent.

Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax then faced sexual assault allegations from several former college classmates and campaign co-workers. He has managed to dodge any civil or criminal action so far, with state lawmakers admitting they don’t have a process to prosecute such complaints. However, his popularity has fallen dramatically since the allegations were made public.

Fairfax and Northam have both faced calls for resignation, which have so far been ignored.

The governor has receded from the public eye in the wake of the scandal, holding few public events and facing protests that have forced him to cancel public appearances, but political watchdogs don’t think the incident will play much of a role during the 2019 election cycle.

“The inconclusive report means that things will continue as they have been going in Virginia,” Stephen Farnsworth, director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington, said in a statement sent to Courthouse News. “It still looks like the governor will be able to limp his way through the rest of his term, and he will continue to be of little use to Democratic candidates in Virginia’s midterm elections this fall.”

All 140 state House and Senate seats are up for grabs this November, but considering the state’s deep disdain for President Donald Trump – 59% of Virginia voters disapproved of the president in a February Quinnipiac University poll – and a ruling for the reconfiguration of 26 voter districts, Republicans are clinging to hopes of keeping control of both legislative chambers after holding the majority for almost 20 years.  

Virginians head to primary polls next month and the general election will be held in November.

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