By Linda Cicoira — Investigators hired by Eastern Virginia Medical School to look into the racist photograph that appears on Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 yearbook page were unable to determine the identity of the two people who were posing and disguised, according to a report made at a press conference at the school Wednesday morning.
The photo showed one person in blackface and the other wearing the traditional costume of the Ku Klux Klan, with a hood covering the face.
Northam, who has denied appearing in the photo or having any knowledge of how it ended up on his yearbook page, was interviewed twice by the investigators, members of a Richmond law firm. Thirty-two people were interviewed including Northam’s wife and his staff and alumni and current students. Nine students said they had experienced racial insensitivity that “were not indicative of EVMS as a whole.”
A spokesperson said yearbooks published between 1976-2013 were done by the students. Other blackface photos were in yearbooks, the spokesperson said.
“The yearbooks repeatedly contained other content that could be offensive to women, minorities, certain ethnic groups, and others,” the report stated. “These issues or themes recurred over much of the time period in which the yearbooks were published, although with less frequency in the later years of the yearbooks’ publication.” The yearbooks were discontinued in 2013.
As far as the picture on the governor’s page, “No one has told us that it was the governor. The investigation found no information that the picture had been put on the page in error or not by his direction.” The investigators could not find the origin of the photo.
“As best as he could explain from the very first moment, He (Northam) said, ‘I do not believe this is me in the photograph … I don’t think that’s me I don’t remember that.’ His most important thing was his honesty.” Which the spokesperson said was a surprise to many on his staff because they “were expecting to be writing a denial and an apology was taking place. He erred on the side of caution initially.”
“He did not deviate. He remembers the car, the cowboy hat. He does not remember the KKK and the blackface picture.”
During preparation for a reunion, when Northam was running for office, an EVMS staff member discovered the photo. But it was not disclosed.
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. The report also identified 10 photographs depicting individuals in blackface based on the law firm’s review of all EVMS yearbooks.
When the photograph first began spreading across the internet in February, 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.”
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.
“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 … 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. “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.”
It was stressed during Wednesday press conference that EVMS was seeking to improve diversity and inclusion on the campus and had been working on that for a decade. Diversity is defined as human differences, including race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, social class, physical ability or attributes, religious or ethical values system, national origin, and political beliefs. Inclusion is involvement and empowerment, where the worth and dignity of all people are recognized.
“Their publication was hurtful, particularly to the African-American community and to our campus community,” Dr. Richard V. Homan, president, and provost of EVMS and Dean o the School of Medicine said. “It should never have happened.”
Gov. Ralph Northam provided this statement following Wednesday’s press conference:
“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.”