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Virginia governor’s 1984 yearbook page features people in blackface and KKK hood

Gov. Ralph Northam confirmed he is one of the people in the photograph — only to reportedly walk that back Saturday morning.

A photo from Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s old yearbook page shows one person dressed in a Ku Klux Klan uniform and another in blackface.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

A photograph from Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s page in a 1984 medical school yearbook shows two people — one in blackface, the other in a Ku Klux Klan costume.

The governor, in apologizing for the picture a few hours after its release, confirmed he was one of the people in it. He did not specify which.

But not even a day later Northam apparently began walking back his admission, reportedly telling state Democrats that he does not recall taking the picture and has no intention of resigning.

It’s been a fast-moving story since the Virginian-Pilot published the photo and an accompanying story on Friday. The same photo had already been appearing in far-right media outlets — it appears Patrick Howley of Big League Politics had it first — after a recent controversy over Northam’s comments about the state’s abortion laws. Virginian-Pilot reporters obtained a copy of the yearbook photo from Eastern Virginia Medical School, and the Washington Post soon reported on the same picture.

The picture appears on Northam’s page in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook, under his name. The other photographs on the same page are of Northam.

Neither publication had been able to confirm whether Northam, elected governor in 2017, was in the blackface-KKK picture (and if he was, which costume he was wearing). Here is how the Virginian-Pilot described the picture’s subjects:

The fourth photo on the half-page has two people, one wearing white Ku Klux Klan robes and a hood, the other with his face painted black. The person with the black face is also wearing a white hat, black jacket, white shirt with a bow tie and plaid pants. Both are holding canned drinks.

It’s unclear who the people in costume are.

However, Northam’s office released a statement from the governor apologizing for the photograph and confirming he is one of the people pictured:

“Earlier today, a website published a photograph of me from my 1984 medical school yearbook in a costume that is clearly racist and offensive.

“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. But I want to be clear, I understand how this decision shakes Virginians’ faith in that commitment.

“I recognize that it will take time and serious effort to heal the damage this conduct has caused. I am ready to do that important work. The first step is to offer my sincerest apology and to state my absolute commitment to living up to the expectations Virginians set for me when they elected me to be their Governor.”

Saturday morning, he had apparently re-evaluated and was reportedly calling members of his state party to tell them he wasn’t in the photo.

The revelation of the yearbook picture comes as amid a controversy about Northam’s comments about a proposed Virginia law to relax abortion restrictions, which spurred backlash from the right and anti-abortion groups. Vox’s Anna North covered the controversy and Northam’s remarks, which his opponents claimed amounted to a tacit endorsement of infanticide:

Virginia House Bill 2491 would roll back a number of requirements, including a 24-hour waiting period and a mandate that second-trimester abortions take place in a hospital. Always something of a long shot in the Republican-controlled state legislature, the bill may now be doomed by the national firestorm surrounding it.

The controversy has centered on a provision concerning third-trimester abortions. Under current Virginia law, in order for a patient to terminate a pregnancy in the third trimester, three doctors must certify that continuing the pregnancy would likely cause the patient’s death or “substantially and irremediably impair” her mental or physical health. The new bill would reduce the number of doctors to one, and remove the “substantially and irremediably” qualifier — abortions would be allowed in cases where a mother’s mental or physical health is threatened, even if the damage might not be irreversible.


Gov. Northam, a Democrat, was asked about the bill in a radio interview on Wednesday, and his response only added to the controversy. Appearing to discuss what would happen if a child was born after a failed attempt at abortion, he said, “the infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”

Some took Northam’s comments as an endorsement of infanticide. “In just a few years pro-abortion zealots went from ‘safe, legal, and rare’ to ‘keep the newborns comfortable while the doctor debates infanticide,” said Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) in a statement on Wednesday.

A spokesperson for Gov. Northam told Vox his comments were “absolutely not” a reference to infanticide, and that they “focused on the tragic and extremely rare case in which a woman with a nonviable pregnancy or severe fetal abnormalities went into labor.”

Democratic leaders in the Virginia Legislature quickly defended Northam. Senate Minority Leader Richard Saslaw told the Post that while the photo was “in very poor taste,” Northam’s life “has been about exactly the opposite... it’s been a life of helping people and many times for free.” The Virginia Republican Party, meanwhile, said Northam should resign if he was the person in the photograph.

Virginia’s lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, was just the second African American to be elected to statewide office in the state. Fairfax recently drew national attention for his refusal to participate in the Virginia Senate’s tribute to Confederate general Robert E. Lee.

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