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 robe 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, his staff, and alumni and current students. Nine students said they had experienced racial insensitivity that was “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.
“Northam told us that he did not write the statements” that were released from his office on Feb. 1, according to the report. “He said that he felt he should take accountability and that the situation was urgent … although he did not believe he was in the photograph.” It was 35 years ago, and he didn’t want to say it wasn’t him “and then have someone come forward and say ‘I was there and remember and it is you.’”
Northam “explained to us that his staff drafted the statements,” but he “read and approved … before they were issued. When asked whether he was surprised when he received the statement admitting he was in the photograph, Northam responded, ‘I wouldn’t say I was surprised,’” because he had asked what needed to be done and said he would do whatever was required. “That’s the mode I was in,” he told investigators.
“There was an urgency to get the statement out. If I had it to do over again I’d do it differently. I always rely on my communications people,” investigators quoted Northam as saying.
“I don’t know why the statement went in the direction it did,” Northam told the investigators. The governor mentioned to investigators a conversation he had with Delegate Luke Torian, of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. “Which one are you?” Torian asked Northam. “Northam told us that he responded, ‘Luke, I can’t answer that, I have no memory of this.’”
Clark Mercer, Northam’s chief of staff, told investigators Northam’s certainty that he was not in the photo increased from Friday to Saturday, “but his initial reaction was always a denial that he was in the photograph.”
Most of the governor’s staff members interviewed during the investigation commented that as a physician, Northam was not given to talking in absolutes. “However, they all reported Governor Northam said from the outset that he did not remember the picture … and he had never seen the picture,” the investigators relayed in the report.
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 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’s 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 of the School of Medicine said. “It should never have happened.”