The Slatest

Investigation Fails to Determine if Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam Wore Blackface in Racist Photo

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and his wife, Pam.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and his wife, Pam, attend the funeral of a Virginia state trooper on Feb. 9 in Chilhowie, Virginia.
Pool/Getty Images

A four-month independent investigation into a racist photo on Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page was unable to determine if the governor was in the image, the Eastern Virginia Medical School announced Wednesday.

Investigators spoke to former classmates and yearbook staff, none of whom remembered Northam, a Democrat, as someone in the photograph, according to the Washington Post.

The 36-page report made note of the time that had passed—the yearbook was from 1984—as a limitation to the investigation: “We acknowledge there is scant information on this subject thirty-five years after the fact. Memories fade over such a lengthy time period and we were unable to contact some individuals who may have relevant knowledge.”

The photo, in which one student wore blackface and another a KKK robe at what appeared to be a costume party, surfaced in February and nearly derailed Northam’s career. Immediately after the photo was published by a conservative site, Northam issued an apology for “the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now.”

But in a press conference the next day, he said he was not one of the two people in the photo (he admitted he had donned blackface as part of a Michael Jackson costume in 1984) and believed the photo was of another student and accidentally placed on his page. As prominent Democrats, including many of the 2020 presidential candidates and some of his own supporters in Virginia, called on him to resign, he insisted he was not in the photo and refused to step down.

The results of the investigation were announced at the EVMS campus in Norfolk in a press conference with the school’s president, Richard Homan, and with former Virginia Attorney General Richard Cullen of the Richmond law firm McGuireWoods, who led the investigation. The law firm also looked into other offensive content in the yearbooks and found that there were at least 10 blackface photos from 1976 through 2004, when the last incident occurred. EVMS banned yearbooks in 2014.

According to the Virginian-Pilot, two EVMS presidents had been aware of the photo’s existence while Northam was running for office but decided not to make it public. “We understand President Homan’s reasoning was EVMS should not become involved, or be seen to become involved, in an election as it is a public body and a public institution, and that EVMS did not not want there to be any suggestion that it had tried to influence Governor Northam in any respect by calling the photograph to his attention,” the report concluded. On Wednesday, Homan stood by his decision to not disclose the photo’s existence.

Northam told CBS News that he had “overreacted” when he apologized for the photo and has blamed that initial apology on his communications staff. In response to the scandal, Northam committed to championing causes of racial equity during his remaining two and a half years in office.

Northam was not the only political figure implicated in the news cycle. The two people in line to succeed him, Attorney General Mark Herring and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, both Democrats, were swept up in their own scandals. Herring admitted he had also worn blackface at a college party when he was 19, and Fairfax was forced to deny allegations from two women accusing him of sexually assaulting them in the early 2000s.