Virginia gov’s yearbook: Probe of racist photo completed

Politics
Ralph Northam, Pam Northam

FILE – In this Feb. 2, 2019 file photo, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, left, gestures as his wife, Pam, listens during a news conference in the Governors Mansion at the Capitol in Richmond, Va. A law firm has completed its investigation into how a racist photo appeared on a yearbook page for Northam. Eastern Virginia Medical School said in a statement Tuesday, May 21 that the findings of the investigation will be announced at a press conference on Wednesday, May 22. Northam’s profile in the 1984 yearbook includes a photo of a man in blackface standing next to someone in Ku Klux Klan clothing. Northam denies being in the photo, which nearly ended his political career in February. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — A law firm has completed its investigation into how a racist photo appeared on Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s yearbook page 35 years ago, and is expected to release the results on Wednesday.

Eastern Virginia Medical School announced Tuesday that it plans a news conference and will make a written report of the investigation public.

The school’s statement included no details about what the investigation found out about Northam’s 1984 yearbook page, which includes a photo of a man in blackface standing next to someone in Ku Klux Klan clothing.

Northam’s office declined to comment.

The medical school in Norfolk hired the law firm McGuireWoods, which is also a top lobbying firm, to conduct an independent investigation.

Virginia politics was turned upside down in a matter of hours in early February after a conservative website posted a picture online of Northam’s medical school yearbook page. The Democratic governor issued two apologies within hours, initially indicating that he was one of the people in the picture. By midnight it appeared his entire political base was gone, with the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, other key Democratic groups and top allies calling on him to resign.

Northam reversed course at a news conference the next day, saying he was convinced it was not him in the picture, while revealing that he did in fact wear blackface once decades ago, to look like Michael Jackson for a dance contest. Defying calls to resign, he said he wanted to focus his remaining three years in office on addressing longstanding racial inequities. While he was all but invisible in February and much of March, the governor is making routine public appearances again.

And he’s won praise from black lawmakers and others for several recent policy moves. Those include a halt to suspending the suspension of driver’s licenses for motorists with unpaid court fines and costs, and a review into how public schools teach our nation’s racial history.

The heat for Northam to resign significantly lessened after scandal enveloped his potential successors. Two women publicly accused Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax of sexual assault, which he denies, and Attorney General Mark Herring announced he’d also worn blackface in college, just days after he too called on Northam to resign. Both Fairfax and Herring also resisted calls to resign. And other politicians around the South soon had their own explaining to do over yearbook images taken long ago.

But the incident will forever mark Northam’s time in office, and opponents still use it against him. House Majority Leader Del. Todd Gilbert recently said Northam had chosen to “repair his own racist legacy,” rather than protect victims of domestic abuse after the governor vetoed a bill requiring a mandatory jail term for repeat domestic abusers.

The photo on Northam’s yearbook page was one of at least three blackface photos in the 1984 publication, which was reviewed by an Associated Press reporter. One of the others shows a man in blackface who is dressed up as a woman wearing a wig. A caption reads: “‘Baby Love,’ who ever thought Diana Ross would make it to Medical School!”

Calling the photos “shockingly abhorrent,” school leaders commissioned an investigation into past yearbooks and the school’s culture. Thousands of letters and emails were sent to alumni asking for information as part of the investigation.

Former students who worked on the 1984 yearbook have disagreed over whether the photo could have been mistakenly placed on Northam’s page.

Dr. Giac Chan Nguyen-Tan, a physician practicing in Connecticut, said earlier this year that a page he laid out for the yearbook was changed without his knowledge before publication. But fellow yearbook staffer Dr. William Elwood disagreed that any photos were mixed up and said it was unlikely someone could have pulled a prank, because a limited number of people had keys to the yearbook room.

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Suderman reported from Richmond, Virginia.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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