Virginia first lady under fire for handing cotton to black students during tour of residence's slave quarters

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Virginia’s first lady is the subject of harsh criticism for handing raw cotton to two black students while giving a historical tour of the executive mansion’s former slave quarters, asking the students to consider what it would have been like to be a slave.

Pam Northam and her husband, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, were hosting about 100 young people who had served as legislative assistants, or pages, during the state Senate session when the incident took place, according to the Washington Post. The governor’s mansion in Virginia is the oldest one in the U.S., completed in 1813. The historic kitchen, where slaves and servants once lived and worked, still overlooks the garden.

Virginia’s first lady, Pam Northam, is the subject of a racial controversy just weeks after her husband, Gov. Ralph Northam, faced accusations over a racist photo. (Photo: Getty Images)
Virginia’s first lady, Pam Northam, is the subject of a racial controversy just weeks after her husband, Gov. Ralph Northam, faced accusations over a racist photo. (Photo: Getty Images)

While showing the cottage to about 20 pages, Northam held up samples of both cotton and tobacco — two of the crops commonly picked by slaves. She is accused of then targeting two of the only black pages in the group and attempting to hand them pieces of cotton as part of a hands-on demonstration, according to CBS affiliate WTVR. A firsthand account of the events was detailed in a letter written by an eighth-grade girl in the group and addressed to Northam, a former middle school teacher. The girl is the daughter of Leah Dozier Walker, who oversees the Office of Equity and Community Engagement at the state Education Department.

“There are only three black pages in the page class of 2019,” the letter reportedly reads. “When you went to hand out the cotton you handed it straight to another African-American page, then you proceeded to hand it to me. I did not take it. The other page took the cotton, but it made her very uncomfortable. I will give you the benefit of the doubt, because you gave it to some other pages. But you followed this up by asking: ‘Can you imagine being an enslaved person, and having to pick this all day?’”

The student added, “From the time we walked into the mansion to the time in the cottage house, I did not receive a welcoming vibe. It was very testing to know I had to go somewhere, and I had no choice as to if I went, I had to be respectful, and be on my best behavior, even when the people in positions of power I was around were not doing the same.”

She also called the first lady’s actions “beyond inappropriate, especially considering recent events with the governor.” The page is referring to a controversy that unfolded after a racist photo from Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook surfaced on Feb. 1. The image showed two people — one man in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe. Some alleged the governor was one of the men pictured.

Northam apologized for “the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now,” but quickly took it back, claiming that he was actually not the man in the picture. He said he was misrepresented because the image was “with others I submitted, on a page with my name on it,” according to the New Yorker, but that he was guilty of once darkening his face to dress up as Michael Jackson in the ’80s. Critics called for the governor to resign amid the scandal, but the Democrat told interviewer Gayle King on Face the Nation, “I’m not going anywhere.”

The governor and Mrs. Northam have asked the residents of the Commonwealth to forgive them for their racially insensitive past actions,” Walker wrote in a letter addressed to lawmakers and the governor’s office, according to the Washington Post. “But the actions of Mrs. Northam, just last week, do not lead me to believe that this governor’s office has taken seriously the harm and hurt they have caused African-Americans in Virginia or that they are deserving of our forgiveness.”

She continued, “Mrs. Northam … asked these three pages (the only African-American pages in the program) if they could imagine what it must have been like to pick cotton all day. I can not for the life of me understand why the first lady would single out the African-American pages for this — or — why she would ask them such an insensitive question.”

In a written statement, Northam addressed the student’s letter by saying:

“As first lady, I have worked over the course of the last year to begin telling the full story of the Executive Mansion, which has mainly centered on Virginia’s governors. The Historic Kitchen should be a feature of Executive Mansion tours, and I believe it does a disservice to Virginians to omit the stories of the enslaved people who lived and worked there — that’s why I have been engaged in an effort to thoughtfully and honestly share this important story since I arrived in Richmond.

“I have provided the same educational tour to Executive Mansion visitors over the last few months and used a variety of artifacts and agricultural crops with the intention of illustrating a painful period of Virginia history. I regret that I have upset anyone.

“I am still committed to chronicling the important history of the Historic Kitchen, and will continue to engage historians and experts on the best way to do so in the future.”

A spokesperson for the first lady denied she purposely singled out any black pages, according to the Post, and another student who was part of the tour corroborated that story, saying the first lady handed out the cotton to the entire group.

State Sen. William M. Stanley Jr., whose daughter was one of pages present, said, “The first lady’s intent was to show the horrors of slavery and to make sure everyone felt the pain they felt in some small measure.”

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