As multiple revelations rock Virginia’s capital, its impacts have been felt far and wide, including in Virginia’s colonial capital, Williamsburg.
On Friday, Gov. Ralph Northam said in a statement he was pictured in a 1984 medical school yearbook page that showed a person in blackface standing next to a person in Ku Klux Klan robes. Both people held canned drinks.
While Northam apologized Friday night, he later walked back that apology in a Saturday press conference and said he’s not in the photograph. He also said he once darkened his face with shoe polish for a dance contest in San Antonio, Texas. He said he wanted to look like Michael Jackson for the contest.
By Monday, Northam had met with his cabinet and asked them for more time to fight the allegations, according to a report in the Washington Post.
For the York-James City-Williamsburg branch president of the NAACP, Brian Smalls, the entire debacle is shameful.
“(I’m) very disappointed,” Smalls, an attorney in James City County said. “Resignation is a step in the right direction.”
Northam has faced waves of protestors in Richmond since the Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook photos came to light on Friday, and public officials in Williamsburg have begun to weigh in.
Northam will not attend Charter Day
For Williamsburg Councilman Benny Zhang, the only elected minority representative in the Historic Triangle, the issue is cut and dried: Northam should resign, and the College of William and Mary should think about taking back Northam’s honorary degree.
“No explanation he can give is sufficient,” Zhang said in an email. “For the benefit of the commonwealth, Ralph Northam must resign. William and Mary made the right decision in asking Northam to withdraw from this year’s Charter Day. In light of compelling circumstances, the college should consider rescinding his honorary degree as well.”
William and Mary spokeswoman Suzanne Seurattan said that’s not on the table at the moment.
“The university is not currently discussing any action on the honorary degree the governor received last year,” Seurattan wrote in an email. “The Board of Visitors has a long-standing practice of not rescinding honorary degrees…. William and Mary (bestows) honorary degrees based on information known at the time when they are conferred and do not constitute a standing endorsement of anyone’s moral character.”
The Board of Visitors made an exception in 2018 when comedian and convicted sexual predator Bill Cosby’s honorary degree was rescinded.
However, the college decided with Northam that he will not attend their annual Charter Day event nor participate in the inauguration President Katherine Rowe.
Rowe said the behavior depicted in the photo from Northam’s yearbook went against William and Mary’s core values.
“Under the circumstances, it has become clear that the governor’s presence would fundamentally disrupt the sense of campus unity we aspire to and hope for with this event,” Rowe wrote in a prepared statement. “We have conferred with the governor’s office, and he will not be part of Friday’s program.”
Northam was scheduled to give brief remarks including a “Greetings from the Commonwealth” address, Seurattan said in an email.
“We are discussing options for someone else to fill that role in the program,” Seurattan said.
Moral Mondays makes no mention of Northam
As Moral Mondays protestors picketed nearby the college in front of Merchants Square with signs for racial justice, none of the signs mentioned Northam by name.
The founder of Moral Mondays in Williamsburg John Whitley said the protestors don’t aim to be partisan with their message for racial justice. Northam’s yearbook is only one part of the greater issue of racism in Virginia.
“We never, ever bring a name forward,” said John Whitley. “What we’re dealing with is the reality of what we must do when we face moments like this.”
“We’ve had so many opportunities to criticize Trump,” another protestor added behind him, but the group has never put his name on a sign.
Whitley said what is most important to the group is dealing with reconciliation and reparations for racism in the commonwealth as a whole, and not to telescope into a single issue.
“What do you gain just simply tossing a person out of office when the conversation in this community … needs to go much deeper around economic issues, education issues, health, environment, minimum wage, living wage … and having a better relationship with the elements of our community,” Whitley said.
“Is there a black legislator in Williamsburg? When’s the last time there was one? There hasn’t been.”
Other reaction mixed
James City County Board of Supervisors chairman Jim Icenhour said he has lost sleep since the yearbook images came to light.
“When I went to high school in Montgomery, Ala., we went to a segregated high school, these were pretty rough times,” Icenhour said. “The standards that were applied to behavior were viewed differently.”
“I think it is an artificial application of a standard to a previous time,” Icenhour said. “Somebody was making a comment to me about Judge (Brett) Kavanaugh. It’s sad, but it’ll probably have to work its way out.”
For Icenhour’s colleague on the Board of Supervisors, John McGlennon, the issue is a question of the public’s confidence in Northam.
“I expect the governor to accept the need to step down,” McGlennon wrote in an email. “He has demonstrated commitment to fairness and justice in public policy. Unfortunately, he has lost the confidence of the public and his fellow elected officials to the degree that he cannot hope to be effective in leading the Commonwealth.”
In a joint statement with other GOP leaders, Virginia Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment (R-James City) said Northam’s actions in the past and present had met the threshold where he now needed to resign.
“The events of this week have convinced us, with sadness and disappointment, that threshold has been met. The confidence of the people is essential to a governor being able to serve effectively. It is clear to us that Gov. Northam no longer holds that confidence.”
The James City County Republican Committee chairman, Chris Henderson, echoed the GOP Senate leadership’s sentiments, but said he wasn’t sure if the photograph from decades ago should outweigh decades of public service since.
Instead, Henderson said, his concern was over the governor’s recent comments about late term abortions.
“However disgusting and repugnant I might find (the photos), I'm not sure if I make them a disqualifier for public office,” Henderson said. “I am much more troubled about his defense of infanticide than about a photo from 35 years ago, and that's not in any way to be construed to be a defence of bigotry or racism.”
For Icenhour though, the question of Northam’s resignation brings a feeling of dejection.
“There’s a good possibility he might (resign),” Icenhour said before pausing. “My knowledge of Ralph Northam is that he’s a tremendously honorable man. He’ll make that judgement based on what he should do that’s best for Virginia.”
As questions swirl over Northam’s actions, claims of a sexual assault have surfaced concerning Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax.
Fairfax, 39, denied that he had sexually assaulted a woman in 2004 at the Democratic National Convention in Boston.
“This thing was not only from left field, it was from planet Mars, because it didn’t happen in the way that it is described,” Fairfax told reporters Monday.
Daily Press archives were used in this story.
Roberts can be reached at 757-604-1329, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @SPRobertsJr.