Va. Gov. Northam apologizes for 1984 yearbook page with racist imagery

WASHINGTON — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam confirmed Friday evening his appearance in a picture that features a person in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood in a 1984 medical school yearbook page that also has different pictures of the future governor.

WTOP obtained a copy of the photo Friday from the Eastern Virginia Medical School, which Northam attended. The photos were first published by conservative news site Big League Politics.

The rest of the half-page is filled with pictures of Northam and lists his undergraduate alma mater, Virginia Military Institute, along with other information about him.

The Democratic governor released a video statement on Twitter, just hours after his office put out a written statement Friday evening.

“I have spent the past year as your governor, fighting for a Virginia that works better for all people,” Northam said toward the video’s end. “I am committed to continuing that fight through the remainder of my term and living up to the expectations you set for me when you elected me to serve.”

Here’s Northam’s full written statement:

“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. This behavior is not in keeping with who I am today and the values I have fought for throughout my career in the military, in medicine and in public service. But I want to be clear, I understand how this decision shakes Virginians’ faith in that commitment. I recognize that it will take time and serious effort to heal the damage this conduct has caused. I am ready to do that important work. The first step is to offer my sincerest apology and to state my absolute commitment to living up to the expectations Virginians set for me when they elected me to be their governor.”

It’s still unclear which person in the photo is Northam.

And, in a 1981 Virginia Military Institute yearbook found on an online archive, a photo of Northam appears with a list of nicknames underneath; one of those nicknames uses a racial slur.

As the night went on, calls for Northam’s resignation grew.

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, tweeted that it had been a “heartbreaking day.” Northam served as McAuliffe’s lieutenant governor.

“His actions on display in this photo were racist, unacceptable and inexcusable at any age and any time,” McAuliffe said in a tweet. “It’s time for Ralph to step down, and for the commonwealth to move forward.”

In a statement late Friday night, the Virginia House Democratic Caucus called Northam “a great friend and ally” and that members were having trouble “reconciling” their experience with Northam and the Northam in the photo.

However, they continued, “We regret to say that we are no longer confident in the governor’s representation of Virginians. Though it brings us no joy to do so, we must call for Governor Northam’s resignation.”

Virginia Senate Democrats also called for Northam to step down and said they were “beyond disappointed.”

In an earlier statement, the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus said that members were still processing the news, but called it “disgusting, reprehensible and offensive.” The statement went on to call those who would excuse Northam’s photo in the 1984 yearbook “just as culpable.”

“We feel complete betrayal,” the statement read. “The legacy of slavery, racism and Jim Crow has been an albatross around the necks of African-Americans for over 400 years. These pictures rip off the scabs of an excruciatingly painful history and are a piercing reminder of the nation’s sins.”

Hours later, the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus released another statement, saying they had met with Northam, but that he could “no longer effectively serve as governor” and called for his resignation.

NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson tweeted, “Blackface in any manner is always racist and never OK. No matter the party affiliation, we cannot stand for such behavior, which is why the NAACP is calling for the resignation of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam.”

A number of prominent Democrats, including presidential hopefuls Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Julián Castro, also called for Northam’s resignation.

The Democratic senators from Virginia also responded Friday night in emailed statements to WTOP, but did not mention Northam stepping down.

Sen. Mark Warner said, “This photo is shocking and deeply offensive, all the more so because of Virginia’s long and painful history of racism and violence toward African-Americans.” Warner called on Northam to listen to the people of Virginia and the communities he hurt.

Sen. Tim Kaine called Northam’s photo “horrible,” adding, “This causes pain in a state and a country where centuries of racism have already left an open wound.”

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., tweeted, in part, “Governor Northam must resign and fully acknowledge the painful past these images evoke. Bigotry has no place in Virginia.”

Republican Party of Virginia Chairman Jack Wilson said in a statement that racism had “no place in Virginia” and called the picture “wholly inappropriate.” Wilson added, “If Governor Northam appeared in blackface or dressed in a KKK robe, he should resign immediately.”

Rep. Denver Riggleman, R-Va., whose district includes Charlottesville, tweeted in response that Northam’s yearbook page “hit more than a nerve.”

“Issues of racial discrimination cannot be taken lightly & this type of behavior is dangerous & unacceptable in any form,” Riggleman, who sought the Republican nomination during the 2017 gubernatorial race, had tweeted.

Larry Sabato with the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics told WTOP’s Dimitri Sotis and Veronica Robinson that news of Northam’s photo came as a “tremendous shock.”

“All of us who are in the political world here have known Ralph Northam for a long time; he was in the state Senate for years and then ran for lieutenant governor, served four years, now elected governor, and I don’t think anyone thought this was a possibility, much less a reality,” Sabato said.

Now that Northam has confirmed his appearance in the photo, Sabato asked, “Can he survive? And I don’t know whether he can or not; I’m hearing very contradictory things, but he’s been hobbled now as governor. Really hobbled.”

When asked why the photo wasn’t discovered earlier in Northam’s political career, Sabato said that was also a major question, since the team of Northam’s Republican opponent during the 2017 governor’s race should’ve found it.

“I mean, this is published. One of the first places opposition researchers go is to yearbooks,” Sabato said. “When he ran for lieutenant governor, how come no one found out then? He ran multiple times for state Senate, how come no one found out then?”

An Eastern Virginia Medical School spokesperson said in an email to WTOP: “We can confirm that the picture in question does appear in a 1984 student-produced publication. The EVMS library is open to the public and does provide access to its materials.”

Eastern Virginia Medical School’s Vincent Rhodes added, “We really can’t comment on a photo taken of a medical student 35 years ago. Yearbook production was a student activity. We don’t know when or where the photo was taken, nor anything about the contents.”

Rhodes added, “I can tell you EVMS is absolutely committed to supporting and creating a culture of diversity and inclusion. One of our principal missions is to recruit, educate and train a culturally competent health care workforce that reflects the demographics of the nation and the patients we serve.”

Northam recently came under fire from Republicans for supporting looser restrictions on late-term abortions. On WTOP’s Ask the Governor program earlier this week, he said the controversy around state Del. Kathy Tran’s bill was “blown out of proportion.”

“I wasn’t there and I certainly can’t speak for Delegate Tran,” he told WTOP. But Northam, a doctor, added, “This is why decisions such as this should be made by providers, physicians, mothers and fathers that are involved.”

A number of conservative leaders went on to interpret Northam’s words as defending infanticide.

Gov. Northam discusses late-term abortion on WTOP's Ask The Governor

The Associated Press contributed to this report. WTOP’s Megan Cloherty and Rick Massimo also contributed to this report. 

Teta Alim

Teta Alim is a Digital Editor at WTOP. Teta's interest in journalism started in music and moved to digital media.

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up