Investigation Into Blackface Photo on Gov. Northam’s Yearbook Page Is Inconclusive

A handout image shows what appears to be the 1984 yearbook page of Ralph Northam, now the governor of Virginia, showing a person dressed as a member of the Ku Klux Klan and another wearing blackface. A nearly four-month inquiry into the racist photograph in the medical school yearbook of Northam was unable to determine whether the governor was in the image, deepening a mystery that threw the state government into chaos in early February. The findings were released on May 22, 2019, in a 55-page report commissioned by Eastern Virginia Medical School. (Eastern Virginia Medical School via The New York Times) -- NO SALES; FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY WITH NYT STORY VA GOV YEARBOOK BY ALAN BLINDER FOR MAY 22, 2019. ALL OTHER USE PROHIBITED. --



Alan Blinder

c.2019 New York Times News Service


An inquiry into a racist photograph on the medical school yearbook page of Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia could not determine whether the governor himself appeared in the image, but investigators also said Wednesday that they had not found that the picture had been published in error.

In a report commissioned by Eastern Virginia Medical School, where the governor earned his medical degree, outside lawyers wrote that they “could not conclusively determine the identity of either individual depicted in the photograph,” which showed two men: one dressed in a Ku Klux Klan robe and the other in blackface.

But the investigation did not represent a full exoneration for the Democratic governor whose career was imperiled after the revelation of the photograph, which had been published in a yearbook section with Northam’s name and other pictures of him alone. The investigators, including a former state attorney general, said that they had “identified no information that the photograph was placed on Governor Northam’s personal page in error or by any other means not at his direction.” They noted, though, that they could not confirm “the origin” of the image.

Wednesday’s report was the latest marker in a head-spinning sequence of events that threw the Virginia government into chaos in early February. Approaching four months later, every statewide public official who came under scrutiny in a cascading series of scandals — Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin E. Fairfax and Attorney General Mark R. Herring, all of them Democrats — remains in power.

But it was the yearbook photograph on Northam’s page that kicked off the political crisis. Within hours of its disclosure, Northam, who earned his medical degree in 1984, said he was “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.”

He faced a rising swell of demands for his resignation after his apparent confession at a Friday evening news conference. The next day, though, he retracted his admission, declaring, “It was definitely not me.”

The reversal did not eliminate the firestorm that had come to surround Northam. Instead, the pressure intensified, and within days the turmoil spread beyond the governor’s office: Fairfax faced allegations of sexual assault, which he denied, and Herring admitted to wearing blackface when he was an undergraduate student.

With Fairfax and Herring under siege, the clamor that surrounded Northam, who met with black leaders in private and saw a planned rehabilitation tour provoke opposition, slowly faded. The expectation in Richmond, the Virginia capital, is increasingly that Northam will serve out the rest of his term, which expires in 2022. He cannot seek re-election.

While Northam tried to hold onto power, his alma mater conducted the review that was publicly detailed Wednesday. Its yearbooks, which journalists tore through in the days after the scandal erupted, showed Ku Klux Klan and Confederate attire. The 1984 yearbook, the publication that featured Northam, included at least two other images of blackface.

“We want this to be more than just a review of what happened 30 years ago,” the medical school’s president, Dr. Richard V. Homan, said in February. “We want to know what’s happening today and what we can do to make things better.”

And in a statement around that time, Homan said the picture on the governor’s yearbook page was “shockingly abhorrent and absolutely antithetical to the principles, morals and values we hold and espouse of our educational and research institution and our professions.”

After Eastern Virginia, Northam spent eight years as a military doctor — during which time, he acknowledged, he darkened his face as part of a Michael Jackson costume.

“I look back now and regret that I did not understand the harmful legacy of an action like that,” he said in February.