Virginia Democrat Governor Ralph Northam's wife allegedly handed raw cotton to black students during a tour of the governor's mansion last week and told them to imagine being slaves and being forced to pick the cotton.
The Washington Post reported that the allegation came from a Virginia state employee who said that "her eighth-grade daughter was upset during a tour of the historic governor’s residence when first lady Pam Northam handed raw cotton to her and another African American child and asked them to imagine being enslaved and having to pick the crop."
"The Governor and Mrs. Northam have asked the residents of the Commonwealth to forgive them for their racially insensitive past actions," said Leah Dozier Walker, the Director of Equity and Engagement at Virginia's Education Department, in a letter to lawmakers on Monday. "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."
The tour, which took place last Thursday, involved a "traditional gathering of about 100 young people who had served as pages during the state Senate session."
Northam took groups of pages to an area that served as a kitchen and held up raw cotton in front of over a dozen pages and described the slaves who were forced to pick the cotton.
"Mrs. Northam then asked these three pages [the only black pages in attendance] if they could imagine what it must have been like to pick cotton all day," Walker said in her letter. "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."
The incident comes after Governor Northam faced widespread calls for his resignation earlier this month after a photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook was uncovered which showed two individuals, one in blackface, the other in a KKK hood.
Following the revelation, Northam admitted to being in the photo, saying: "I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now. This behavior is not in keeping with who I am today and the values I have fought for throughout my career in the military, in medicine and in public service."
The next day Northam walked back his statement, claiming that was not him in the photo because he remembered wearing blackface on another occasion.
"Yesterday I took responsibility for content that appeared on my page in the Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook that was clearly racist and offensive. I am not and will not excuse the content of the photo," Northam said during a press conference. "It was offensive, racist, and despicable. When my staff showed me the photo in question yesterday, I was seeing it for the first time."
"I did not purchase the EVMS yearbook and I was unaware of what was on my page," Northam continued. "When I was confronted with the images yesterday, I was appalled that they appeared on my page but I believed then and now that I am not either of the people in that photo. I stand by my statement of apology to the many Virginians who were hurt by seeing this content on a yearbook page that belongs to me."
"My belief that I did not wear that costume or attend that party stems in part from my clear memory of other mistakes I made in the same period of my life," Northam concluded. "That same year, I did participate in a dance contest in San Antonio in which I darkened my face as part of a Michael Jackson costume."