Three weeks after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) admitted to having worn blackface in the 1980s and apologized for (and then denied) appearing in a racist photograph in his medical school yearbook, he is still governor. And while polls indicate that the plurality of Virginians do not want him to resign and hand over the governorship to Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax (D) — who has been accused of sexual assault by two women — his efforts to rebuild his lost support hit another snag on Wednesday.
Ten days ago, Virginia Union University (VUU), a historically-black institution in Richmond, announced that Northam would attend a “Faith, Identity & Social Justice” conversation on February 21. Early versions of the announcement reportedly described the appearance as part of Northam’s “apology tour.” The event was to be part of an annual celebration of the Richmond 34, a group of 34 VUU students who took part in a sit-in protesting racial segregation in 1960.
But on Monday, the president of VUU’s student body wrote to Northam asking him not to come. “We are in support of honest conversation around race and reconciliation to move our great state forward,” Jamon Phenix, wrote, “However, we feel as though your attendance takes away from the historical significance of our commemoration of the Richmond 34.”
On Wednesday evening, the governor tweeted that he would respect Phenix’s request and cancel his appearance.
While I appreciate @VAUnion1865's invitation to attend tomorrow's chapel service, I respect the wishes of the student body. In lieu of my attendance, I will host the Richmond 34 at the Executive Mansion on Friday to honor their bravery and courage. pic.twitter.com/qIdX05cvsa
— Ralph Northam (@GovernorVA) February 20, 2019
One member of the Richmond 34, Elizabeth Johnson Rice, told reporters she was “appalled” by Phenix rejecting Northam’s visit and urged more dialogue. She said she would participate in the Friday event at the governor’s mansion, hoping, “Maybe we can help him in getting things moving forward in race relations.”
“I want it to be a learning experience,” she added. “Something has got to be done to negate all of this stuff that’s been coming out. We’ve got to have a positive voice.”
Northam has stated that he plans to focus the nearly three years left of his gubernatorial term to focus on “racial issues.” But he has drawn criticism for a February 10 CBS News interview in which he described the first Africans brought to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619 as “indentured servants” rather than “slaves” and for a press release touting his civil rights restoration effort for former felons, which some activists call underwhelming..
At least one Virginia civil rights leader has made his forgiveness known. After a February 8 meeting, Northam retweeted a statement from National Black Farmers Association founder and president John W. Boyd Jr. that said, “I just concluded a great meeting with VA Gov Ralph Northam @governorva. I pledged my support and urged him NOT to step down. #redemption”
No future events appear on Northam’s public calendar, which has been blank since the story broke at the beginning of the month.
Northam is not the only politician struggling to make amends for past racially insensitive acts. Michael Ertel, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ (R) newly appointed secretary of state, resigned last month after a 15-year-old photo of him wearing blackface at a Halloween party became public. Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (D) apologized for wearing blackface at a college party in 1980. Virginia state Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment (R) was managing editor for a Virginia Military Institute yearbook that was loaded with racial slurs and racist photos and has been accused to racially insensitive comments at a college court he has taught in recent years at William & Mary. And on Thursday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) said he now regrets participating in “Old South” fraternity parties during his time at Auburn University.