A Virginia state employee alleges Virginia First Lady Pam Northam gave raw cotton to her eighth-grade daughter, who is black, and asked her and other students to imagine being slaves during a tour of the governor’s mansion, according to the Washington Post.
“The Governor and Mrs. Northam have asked the residents of the Commonwealth to forgive them for their racially insensitive past actions,” Leah Dozier Walker, an employee of the Office of Equity and Community Engagement at the state Education Department, wrote to Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and other state legislators. “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 said.
The Post reports:
The tour took place Feb. 21, when the Northams hosted a traditional gathering of about 100 young people who had served as pages during the state Senate session, which was wrapping up that weekend.
In this case, Pam Northam — a former middle school teacher — took groups of pages to an adjacent cottage that had long ago served as a kitchen.
Before a huge fireplace with iron cooking implements, Pam Northam held up samples of cotton and tobacco to a group of about 20 children and described the enslaved workers who picked it.
“Mrs. Northam then 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,” wrote Walker. “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 separate letter, Walker’s daughter wrote to the first lady that while she did not take the cotton, her friend did and felt “very uncomfortable” about the offer. “I will give you the benefit of the doubt, because you gave it to some other pages,” she wrote. “But you followed this up by asking: ‘Can you imagine being an enslaved person, and having to pick this all day?’, which didn’t help the damage you had done.”
Northam, in a statement to the Post through the governor’s spokesperson Ofirah Yheskel, said: “I regret that I have upset anyone.”
The mansion, built with slave labor in 1813, is the country’s oldest active state executive residence.
Reports of the incident come as Gov. Northam continues to fight for his political life after a 1984 medical yearbook photo emerged of him and another individual wearing blackface and Ku Klux Klan attire. The photo was first reported by Big League Politics and later verified by the Post.
Northam denies being in the photo but has admitted to donning blackface as part of a Michael Jackson costume. Mark Herring, the state’s Democrat attorney general, has also admitted wearing blackface at a party while an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia.