As Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is dealing with the backlash of his own controversies surrounding a racist yearbook photo, his wife, Pam Northam, has stepped into a mess of her own making after apparently giving raw cotton to two Black children as they were touring the governor’s historic residence.
According to the Washington Post, Leah Dozier Walker, a Virginia state employee who oversees the Office of Equity and Community Engagement at the state Department of Education, complained that her eighth-grade daughter and another Black child were given the crop and asked to imagine being slaves and having to pick cotton.
“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 to lawmakers on Feb. 25, the Post notes. “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 in question took place on Feb. 21, when the Northams played host to a group of about 100 youth who had been pages during the state Senate session that had recently come to an end that weekend.
During the tour, Pam Northam reportedly held up some samples of cotton and tobacco to show a group of about 20 children and described the enslaved people who were forced to harvest the crops.
“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,” Walker alleged 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.”
Virginia’s first lady, for her part, apologized for the incident in a statement on Wednesday, saying “I regret that I have upset anyone.”
The governor’s office, for its part, insisted that Northam merely gave the cotton to whoever was closest to her (incidentally two Black children, I suppose), wanting to draw attention to the sharpness of the raw cotton so that they could picture how difficult it was to handle all day.
Walker’s daughter also wrote a letter to Pam Northam, where she stated she did not take the cotton, although her friend did, making the child “uncomfortable.” She also noted that the handing off of the cotton was one thing, but implied that the follow-up questions made the incident uncalled for.
“I will give you the benefit of the doubt, because you gave it to some other pages,” the girl wrote to Pam Northam. “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.”
This situation is sure not to help the Northams case. There have been many people demanding his resignation since the release of his yearbook photos showing one man dressed in Blackface and another clad in KKK robes. Gov. Northam has so far resisted the calls for his resignation, prompting Black officials in the state to release demands that they want Northam – and Attorney General Mark Herring who is also caught in a Blackface scandal – to follow through with in order to give an honest show of reconciliation.