ONANCOCK, VIRGINIA — If you want to visit Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s home town, you’ll need to set aside some time. The most remote corner of the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay is a few hours drive from anywhere.
A bucolic tourism and fishing village on the western edge of this swerving peninsula, Onancock — by Northam’s own testament — shaped the man he is today.
What sort of man that is — and by extension, what sort of place the Eastern Shore of Virginia might be — is suddenly a wide-open question. A photo on Northam’s Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS) yearbook page showing one man in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe has raised stark and damning questions about Northam’s character.
His herky-jerky public response to the scandal — initially apologizing for appearing in the photo, then contending he wasn’t in it after all but wore blackface on another occasion — suggests a man who never expected to face such questions.
The Democratic governor has touted his upbringing here in the 1960s and 1970s as evidence of an enlightened perspective on race relations, speaking with pride of being in one of the first fully desegregated graduating classes at Onancock High School.
Northam has said that growing up here taught him not just multiculturalism but color-blindness — a common but contentious mode of claiming enlightened sensitivities toward historically marginalized communities.
“Growing up, the way we were raised, my brother and I, we didn’t see color,” the governor said on a recent visit to Onancock to help raise money to preserve the old Samuel Outlaw blacksmith shop. “I don’t think [Outlaw] saw color either. He just treated everybody as human beings. I think that’s a lesson that everybody needs to hear.”
Northam and many other white locals may not want to see it. But for black residents, the legacies of prejudice and paternalism can’t be wished away.
Ask people in downtown Onancock what they think about Ralph Northam’s character today, and you’ll hear a mix of frustration and defiance.
“What you do when you’re young, I can understand it might haunt you but should you be at fault?” Frank Gamboa, 45, mused at a window table in Janet’s Café last week, a spot where the Northam family are regulars.
“I have nothing against him, because at that time, it was different. I’m not worried about his past, I’m worried about what he does for our future,” said Gamboa, a Latinx boat mechanic who moved here from Delaware a half-decade ago.
Around the corner on Market Street, the Eastern Shore of Virginia Historical Society had closed its museum for winter, but the staff were preparing programs to mark Black History Month. Executive Director Hilary Hartnett-Wilson, who is white, was exasperated by the very idea that you could trace the racist yearbook photo back to Northam’s hometown, to pin the whole story on the community she’s lived in her whole life.
“I have no idea why that would have been funny,” she said of the photograph. “Don’t you think you’re a product of your environment? And so then, what was the environment at EVMS in the 1980s?”
For 70-year-old Kelvin Pettit, a vice president at the local electric utility who grew up under Jim Crow laws on a sharecropper’s homestead outside Onancock, the anger is misplaced. The hatred he grew up under is making a comeback, he said, but not via Northam.
“We’ve been well aware of the code words they use, and we shouldn’t be faulted for noticing that ‘Make America Great Again’ deliberately leaves out where they’re trying to go,” Pettit said of the modern conservative movement.
“When I see a young man with a red cap on his head telling me he’s not doing anything, just putting a cap on — ‘I’m 18 years old and I’m embracing this ideology’ — that’s what scares me.”
Pettit worried the recriminations against Northam only make things worse by driving forward-looking people away from seeking public office. “And then what we’ll be left with is the scoundrels,” he said.
Across Route 13 at the county courthouse, Sam Cooper was a bit more sympathetic to the outrage.
“I can understand why so many residents are upset both ways, and disappointed,” said Cooper, who has been Accomack County’s clerk of court since 1983, when he became the first black person ever elected to the job. “We are so proud to have our governor from here. It’s like one of them ‘say-it-ain’t-so’ moments. Do you excuse it because it was so many years ago? Lot of mixed emotions and reactions about that.”
But Cooper, 64, who was part of the first desegregated class at Onancock High three years before Northam went there, said this scandal can be explained by context, time, and youthful folly. Though the picture makes him “disappointed,” Cooper said he’s not comfortable judging Northam on it, in part due to the social segregation of their youth and the tendency of even well-meaning white people to absorb racist stereotypes and entertainment without much thought.
“Now, for me to say that [blackface] was a part of the Eastern Shore culture, I couldn’t fairly say that, because I don’t know,” Cooper said. “It’s one of those situations where, if you’re a person that likes to use the N-word, you probably wouldn’t use it in my presence.”
“Honestly, if he is in fact one of the people in that photo, it’s been my experience that I don’t think that’s who he is. I really don’t,” said Cooper, who’s spent almost 40 years in the same local political circles Northam entered in 2007. “For whatever reason that was done – as a prank, as a whatever – I really don’t think that’s who we’re dealing with.”
When asked what he wishes the governor would say, Cooper went quiet for a moment.
“Speak from the heart, whether it’s right or wrong. My thing right now is just hoping his choice will be to do what’s best for the Commonwealth,” he said. “And I sincerely don’t know what would be best at this point.”
For local history teacher Kentoya Downing-Garcia, the picture isn’t enough to break Northam’s covenant with black Virginia.
“OK, pictures surface. But he hasn’t said the N-word, and he hasn’t done any of this [stuff] in this whole time [since],” she said. “I think we can get past this. He’s a good guy… We’re going to punish a guy for youthful indiscretions, but yet we today don’t hold people accountable for their racial slurs and their behaviors?”
No three people can fairly speak for the whole of the Eastern Shore’s black population, of course. Local NAACP officials and pastors either declined interview requests or did not return calls and emails. But Cooper, Pettit, and Downing-Garcia aren’t the only ones willing to give the doctor-turned-governor the benefit of the doubt. Fifty-eight percent of Africans Americans in Virginia believe Northam should not resign, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll conducted last week.
“People were mutilated under those symbols during Jim Crow. People were lynched under those symbols… There is no way you can put a spin on that.”
Northam attends the predominantly black First Baptist Church in Capeville, at the southern tip of the peninsula. Rev. Kelvin Jones, who is black and has known Northam for 12 years, told a local news site last week that the governor “has the right to prove himself” to Virginia’s black voters.
Some people Northam’s age believe that even well-meaning white people could have somehow missed the inherent racism of minstrel shows during the time Northam lived here. White families in the 1960s and 1970s certainly would have had opportunities to go to such shows, said local historian Brooks Miles Barnes, a white man like Northam who attended area schools in the early years of desegregation. Though the heyday of the professional 19th-century minstrel show circuit was over by the time Northam was a kid, amateur-hour imitators and big-screen adaptations of blackface remained common in the South into the 1960s and beyond.
“People tend to be kind to each other. And if you’ve got a black person that works for you, or that’s a neighbor of yours, and you know they’re in trouble financially, or health-wise or something, there’s nothing you wouldn’t do for them,” Barnes said of the white community he knew in his childhood.
“And then you’d go to the country club and watch the minstrel show, and think nothing of it,” said Barnes, adding that he never attended such a show himself. “Two different worlds. You’d never think twice about it.”
But Northam’s yearbook page is from the 1980s. “Seems late to me,” Barnes noted.
“People were mutilated under those symbols during Jim Crow. People were lynched under those symbols,” said Dr. L. D. Britt, head of the surgery department at EVMS and the first black doctor to head a department at any major American medical school.
“There is no way you can put a spin on that… There are people who were mutilated, lynched, killed. So I’m not going to give anybody a pass on that,” said the 67-year-old, who doesn’t know Northam personally and never overlapped with him at the medical school. But even he wasn’t ready to pass judgment on Northam’s character.
“That doesn’t mean he is today a racist. People evolve,” Britt said. “People need to put an emphasis not on who’s putting shoe polish on their face today, let’s put an emphasis on all people dying because they don’t have health care.”
Like Northam, most people on Virginia’s Eastern Shore see something exceptional in their racial history. The conviction is not baseless.
One of the first places where black people were sold as slaves in the New World, the southern tip of the peninsula was also an early venue for black liberation. The practice of manumission, or freeing slaves, was unusually common here. One-third of the black population of Virginia’s Eastern Shore were free people decades before Union soldiers and Abraham Lincoln forced emancipation upon the slave states.
There was far less organized Ku Klux Klan activity here than elsewhere in the century between the Civil War and Ralph Northam’s birth in 1959, too. Though lynchings and white vigilantism were common north of the state line, historian Linda Duyer’s 2014 book Mob Law on Delmarva records no formal Klan activity in the two Virginia counties here.
The history of public schooling only adds to the locals’ sense of exceptionalism. Northampton and Accomack county leaders never joined the official statewide policy of “Massive Resistance,” whereby many Virginia towns fought to keep education segregated for more than a decade after Brown v. Board of Education.
Many white people here express the same pride Northam expresses about race relations in his youth in Onancock. The Eastern Shore, they say, is just different – southern and proud, yes, but better and kinder than the conventional history of the broader South.
But these historical contrasts to the rest of the old Confederacy require asterisks.
Take the voluntary liberation of slaves: Yes, abolitionist Methodism was prevalent here, but the region’s culture of manumission wasn’t all a matter of good will. Slave owners were often just being pragmatic about their balance sheets, Barnes told ThinkProgress.
“There was an economic [incentive] combined with idealism” underlying the manumission wave here, Barnes said. “One [plantation owner said], ‘My kitchens can’t feed them anymore.’”
Barnes has lived here his whole life, studying the region’s history from Reconstruction through the Great Depression — and living through the same modern convulsions that shaped Northam’s childhood. He shares the governor’s overall sunny view of things, but sounds more attuned to criticism of it.
“I will not make any claim that this is a racial utopia, no way,” Barnes said. “All I can say is that in my lifetime, I have seen improvement in it.”
Though Klan-style activity may have been less common or less documented here than on the Maryland side of the peninsula violent white vigilantism didn’t skip over Northam’s birthplace. There was a race riot here in 1907, where mobs of white men shot at and burned down black-owned businesses, and order was only restored after state militiamen arrived. No white people were arrested, but three black men were imprisoned and spent years in court before their convictions were overturned.
And it’s true that no schools here ever closed in response to desegregation, but an all-white private school did open.
Some Eastern Shore Virginians struggle to acknowledge these footnotes. In a town rife with historical society signs, none exists to mark the 1907 mob violence. But for the black men and women who live here — particularly those of the same age group as Northam — the lingering heritage of this place’s peculiar brand of prejudice is indelible.
“I have no memories of racially charged incidents,” Cooper, the county courts clerk, said of the three years he spent at Onancock High as part of its first desegregated graduating class. Sitting in the office he’s held since his historic 1983 election, Cooper reflected on his own experience during the region’s transition from Jim Crow-era discrimination to the quieter, de facto segregation that persists here today.
A sophomore when the segregated high schools merged in 1970, Cooper remembered the transition going much smoother than anyone expected — an account that squares with Northam’s own descriptions of his time at the same school a few years later.
“I’m not gonna say [racist incidents] didn’t occur” at the school, Cooper said, but his school years aren’t what stick in his mind when it comes to racism in the area. “The reality is, we still have racial prejudice in this community, in every community.”
Cooper couldn’t remember his parents ever warning him about how to act around white people. But they didn’t have to; the lessons were literally written on the walls.
“I do recall traveling – and this was not confined to the Eastern Shore now – [my father] saying to me, well we can’t use this restroom, we’ve got to go to the other one that’s over here,” he said.
Pettit, the electric company executive 10 years Northam’s senior, never attended an integrated school here. And his parents never sat him down to have “the talk” about race. They opted instead to protect their children from painful realities for as long as they could – and to give them a proud example to go by.
Pettit remembered going to the drive-in outside Onancock with his family in the early 1950s and being told they had to park to the right.
“So my mother deliberately parked to the left,” he said, grinning beneath a thin mustache. When the man walked over to tell her to move, she told him they liked their current spot just fine. “And now it’s, ‘If you’re going to stay here you need to park on the right side. My mother said no,” Pettit remembered, and drove the family to another theater for the show without ever raising her voice.
Recalling his mother’s quiet defiance is a pleasure. Other memories pain him. His father, who attended college for two years, lost a telephone lineman job to a white man who would have failed the entrance test without help from the elder Pettit — who was told he could work only as the phone company’s janitor.
“Those things fly in your face,” Pettit said.
“You still have old people of a certain age who say, well I can get away with it because it’s what I’ve done for the past 70, 80 years. And then you also get people who smile in your face and then get behind a screen on whatever social media platform and say whatever.”
He recalled other rituals of second-class citizenship, like watching the white grocer stop taking the Pettit family’s weekly order to tend to any white customer who’d come in the store.
“It was dangerous I think to confront it, to go where you weren’t supposed to go,” Pettit said. “So you didn’t try. You came to town on Saturday afternoon after all the white folks had done their shopping. You knew your time to shop was after the white folks had finished theirs.”
Those little jabs were a constant of life back then for black families like Pettit’s and Cooper’s.
“There were certain expectations, and certain perceived barriers,” Cooper said of life as a black person growing up in the same place and time that shaped Northam. “But fortunately, I don’t have any spectacular memories of racism.”
Today, racism on the Eastern Shore comes in two flavors, said history teacher Downing-Garcia: The condescending paternalism present in much of the region’s history, and the direct, nasty stuff of open bigotry. And it’s complicated by the internet.
“You still have old people of a certain age who say, well I can get away with it because it’s what I’ve done for the past 70, 80 years,” she said. “And then you also get people who smile in your face and then get behind a screen on whatever social media platform and say whatever.”
Downing-Garcia said hers is one of just two black families living in Onancock’s western downtown area. The same racial geography evident in the 1907 race riot, when white mobs ventured east into the black community for vengeance, is still in place.
Even after legal segregation ended, bank policies proscribed black people’s homeownership prospects for decades more.
“You didn’t try to borrow money from the bank when you wanted to build a house, you borrowed it from the biggest farmer you knew,” Pettit said. “It was never any doubt that [white people] expected you to do nothing more than be substandard to them.”
If three people this intimately familiar with racial bias, prejudice, and progress on Virginia’s Eastern Shore are still ready to forgive Northam, his decision not to step down might work for him. Maybe in the process, the place that reared him will end up getting let off the hook too.
“Both white people and black people sometimes don’t understand what they do or what they say is not understood the same way they’re saying it,” Barnes said.
“People change over time. I hate to see him pilloried for that. But I also hate to see the place he’s come from judged on the act of a 25-year-old in 1985.”
CORRECTION: This article previously stated that Brooks Barnes attended Onancock High School. He attended Parksley High School nearby.