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U.S. Politics Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s role in racist yearbook photo unclear, school says

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam initially admitted to having appeared in the photo and apologized. He later changed his story.

Steve Helber/The Associated Press

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s former medical school was unable to determine his role in a racist photograph that appeared on his 1984 yearbook page, according to a report released on Wednesday following a three-month inquiry.

The photo sparked weeks of political chaos in the state after it was published by a conservative website in February, setting off scandals that embroiled Virginia’s three top Democrats. It shows one person in blackface makeup and another in the robes of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan.

Northam initially admitted to having appeared in the photo and apologized. He later changed his story, saying he did not believe he was pictured, but had performed in blackface to impersonate the singer Michael Jackson at about that time.

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That led his alma mater, the Eastern Virginia Medical School, to hire the law firm McGuireWoods to investigate how the photo appeared on Northam’s yearbook page.

“No one we interviewed told us the governor was in the photograph, and no one could positively state who was in the photograph,” the report said. “We found no information that the photograph was placed in error, though we acknowledge there is scant information on this subject thirty-five years after the fact.”

Northam repeated his belief that he was not in the “racist and offensive” photograph in a statement released on Wednesday after the report was made public. He also apologized for his contradictory statement in February.

“I felt it was important to take accountability for the photo’s presence on my page, but rather than providing clarity, I instead deepened pain and confusion,” his statement said.

Northam, a white 59-year-old former U.S. Army doctor, resisted February calls to step down from within his own party in Virginia – seen as a key swing state for the 2020 presidential election – as well as from at least five Democratic presidential candidates.

Two other Virginia officials were wrapped up in scandal shortly thereafter, with women accusing Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax of sexual assault, and Attorney General Mark Herring saying he wore blackface in college to depict a black rapper.

Polls showed Northam maintaining strong support among the state’s black residents. In a February Washington Post poll, 58 per cent of black residents said Northam should remain in office versus 37 per cent who said he should leave.

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Northam was interviewed twice as part of the inquiry, and said he was “positive” he was not in the photograph and did not know who was.

“Governor Northam noted that he was very slender in college and medical school, and that the legs on that person are much thicker than his,” the report said, referring to the person in the photograph wearing blackface.

A former school roommate, now a dentist, told Northam and the lawyers that Northam’s teeth “had never looked as good” as the person in blackface.

The lawyers also interviewed five members of the 1984 yearbook staff, among others.

One witness recalled reviewing Northam’s page with him in 1984, indicating Northam was aware of the photo at the time. Northam denied this encounter happened, the report said.

Northam told the lawyers that he did submit the other pictures that appear on his page along with the printed quotation.

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The photograph showing people in blackface was not isolated to the one that appeared on Northam’s page, the report said. There were at least 10 such photographs in yearbooks from 1976 to 2013, when the school ended their production.

The blackface content peaked in 1984 and 1985 before becoming gradually less common, with two examples of blackface in the 1984 edition besides the one on Northam’s page.

Blackface has roots in 19th century “minstrel” shows in which white performers painted their faces black to caricature slaves. It is widely seen as racist today, but remained a common theme in U.S. television and movies in the 1980s and beyond.

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