Parents say Pam Northam handed cotton to students on a tour of the governor’s mansion and asked them to imagine picking it
Ralph Northam and Pamela Northam at the governor’s mansion on 9 February 2019 in Richmond, Virginia.
Photograph: Katherine Frey/AP
Virginia’s first lady has been accused of racial insensitivity after handing cotton to students on a tour of the historic governor’s mansion and asking them to imagine being slaves who had to pick it.
Leah Dozier Walker, the mother of one of the students, complained in a letter to lawmakers and the governor’s office that her eighth-grade daughter and another student, who are both black, were upset when Pam Northam handed them cotton on the tour, the Washington Post reported.
The latest incident comes as Virginia’s governor, Ralph Northam, is under fire for a racist photo in his medical school yearbook, which shows a person in blackface standing next to a person wearing the white robes and hood of the Ku Klux Klan.
Northam initially acknowledged appearing in the photo, but then denied he was in it. He admitted that he wore blackface on a different occasion, while impersonating Michael Jackson. Northam has refused to resign despite calls from the state’s top Democrats.
“The governor and Mrs Northam have asked the residents of the commonwealth to forgive them for their racially insensitive past actions,” wrote Walker, who is also the head of the Office of Equity and Community Engagement at the state education department.
“But the actions of Mrs Northam, just last week, do not lead me to believe that this governor’s office has taken seriously the harm and hurt they have caused African Americans in Virginia or that they are deserving of our forgiveness.”
Pam Northam gave a tour of the executive mansion this month to students who had served as pages for the state senate.
The governor’s office told the Post she did not single out black students, but simply handed it to young people who were nearby and wanted them to feel the sharpness of the plant in order to better understand how painful it would be to pick all day.
“I regret that I have upset anyone,” Pam Northam said in a statement to Wavy.
She said she had worked to tell the full story of the mansion’s history by including a visit to its historic kitchen and telling visitors about the slaves who worked at the site, and would consult historians about the most appropriate way to convey those experiences to visitors in the future.
“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 said.
“I have provided the same educational tour to executive mansion visitors over the last few months and used a variety of artifacts and agricultural crops with the intention of illustrating a painful period of Virginia history.”
In a letter to Northam posted by the news station, the eighth-grader said she and the other page who was handed cotton were two of only three African Americans in the class.
“The comments and just the way you carried yourself during this time was beyond inappropriate, especially considering recent events with the governor,” she wrote.