Virginia governor’s role in blackface yearbook photo is unclear, report finds

“No one we interviewed told us the Governor was in the photograph, and no one could positively state who was in the photograph,” the report said. “We found no information that the photograph was placed in error, though we acknowledge there is scant information on this subject thirty-five years after the fact.”

Virginia’s Governor Ralph Northam first admitted that the blackface photo was him then later said it wasn’t. Credit:The New York Times

The McGuireWoods report concluded that the yearbook’s production was overseen by students with little or no faculty input up to 2013.

Northam, a white 59-year-old former US Army doctor, resisted calls in February to step down from within his own party in Virginia – seen as a key swing state for the 2020 presidential election – as well as from at least five Democratic presidential candidates.

Two other Virginia officials were wrapped up in scandal shortly thereafter, with women accusing Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax of sexual assault, and Attorney-General Mark Herring saying he wore blackface in college to depict a black rapper.

Northam resisted calls from within his own party to resign,

Northam resisted calls from within his own party to resign,Credit:The Washington Post

Polls showed Northam keeping strong support among the state’s black residents. In a Washington Post poll, 58 per cent of black residents said Northam should remain in office versus 37 per cent who said he should leave.

Northam was interviewed twice as part of the inquiry, and said he was “positive” he was not in the photograph and did not know who was.

“Governor Northam noted that he was very slender in college and medical school, and that the legs on that person are much thicker than his,” the report said, referring to the person in the photograph wearing blackface.

A former school roommate, now a dentist, told Northam and the lawyers that Northam’s teeth “had never looked as good” as the person in blackface.


The lawyers also interviewed five members of the 1984 yearbook staff, among others.

One witness recalled reviewing Northam’s page with him in 1984, indicating Northam was aware of the photo at the time. Northam denied this encounter happened, the report said.

Northam told the lawyers that he did submit the other pictures that appear on his page along with the printed quotation.

Northam’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the inquiry’s findings.

The photograph showing people in blackface was not isolated to the one that appeared on Northam’s page, the report said. There were at least ten such photographs in yearbooks from 1976 to 2013, when the school ended their production.


The blackface content peaked in 1984 and 1985 before becoming gradually less common, with two examples of blackface in the 1984 edition besides the one on Northam’s page.

“The yearbooks repeatedly contained other content that could be offensive to women, minorities, certain ethnic groups, and others,” the report said.

Blackface has roots in 19th century “minstrel” shows in which white performers painted their faces black to caricature slaves. It is widely seen as racist today, but remained a common theme in US television and movies in the 1980s and beyond.

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