Virginia’s first lady Pam Northam ― whose husband, Gov. Ralph Northam (D), has seen his grip on his office threatened by charges of racism ― finds herself under fire from a parent after she handed cotton to some black students and asked them to think about what it was like to be enslaved.
The awkward exchange occurred Feb. 21 during a tour of the governor’s mansion in Richmond that Northam conducted for about 20 teens who had served as pages in the Virginia state Senate.
Pam Northam, a former middle school teacher, was showing the students a cottage on the grounds that once served as a kitchen. At one point, she held up samples of tobacco and cotton and described the lives of the enslaved workers who harvested the crops, according to The Washington Post.
She then gave cotton to two of the young people, who along with another were the only blacks in the group, and asked them to imagine what it must have been like to pick the crop all day, according to the mother of one of the pages who is upset about the interaction.
Leah Dozier Walker, an official at the state Education Department who oversees its Office of Equity and Community Engagement, said she was livid when her daughter recounted the incident.
In a letter sent Monday to the first lady and state lawmakers, Walker wrote:
“I can not for the life of me understand why the first lady would single out the African American pages for this — or — why she would ask them such an insensitive question.”
Walker, noting that the governor and his wife have been asking Virginians “to forgive them for their racially insensitive past actions,” added that “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.”
The governor’s office said the first lady simply handed the cotton to whoever was nearby, according to the Post’s story.
Pam Northam responded to Walker’s complaints with a statement to Portsmouth, Virginia-based WAVY-TV:
“As First Lady, I have worked over the course of the last year to begin telling the full story of the Executive Mansion, which has mainly centered on Virginia’s governors.
“The Historic Kitchen should be a feature of Executive Mansion tours, and 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.
“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. I regret that I have upset anyone.
“I am still committed to chronicling the important history of the Historic Kitchen, and will continue to engage historians and experts on the best way to do so in the future.”
The controversy hovering over the state’s first family began earlier this month when it was revealed that Ralph Northam’s yearbook page from decades ago when he attended Eastern Virginia Medical School featured a photo of a man wearing blackface next to another wearing a Ku Klux Klan outfit.
The governor initially indicated he was in the photo and apologized for it, but he then created confusion the next day by saying he was not one of those in the offensive picture. Saying he had no explanation for why the photo appeared on his yearbook page, he also admitted he once put shoe polish on his face for a Michael Jackson costume. He told reporters he could moonwalk ― and Pam Northam won plaudits for dissuading him from doing so in front of the press.
As unrelated personal controversies have also engulfed the state’s lieutenant governor and attorney general, Northam has embarked on damage control by saying he would focus on racial equality while vowing to serve out the almost three years remaining in his term.
He didn’t help his cause, however, by using the term “indentured servants” when referring to slaves during an interview with “CBS This Morning” host Gayle King.