Blackface Scandal: The Case for and Against Northam

There is plenty of evidence in the McGuire Woods report on the Northam/Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS) blackface scandal to confirm whatever prejudices and preconceptions you had beforehand. If you believe that Governor Ralph Northam was not one of the figures in the infamous EVMS school yearbook photo, there are plausible though inconclusive arguments to support your view. If you believe he was, there are equally plausible-but-inconclusive arguments to back you up.

This morning I read the portions of the report (which you can access here), that pertain to Northam. (I skipped the lengthy sections probing EVMS’s commitment to “diversity and inclusion” since the 1980s.) My two main conclusions:

  1. The investigation, though extensive, was far from exhaustive. The investigators neglected to pursue lines of inquiry that would have added important context.
  2. Regardless of whether Northam was one of the two figures in the notorious photo, the odds are strong that he submitted the photo to the yearbook.

Herewith, I present what I believe are the most salient facts and arguments on both sides.

Arguments for Northam’s innocence

After initially acknowledging when the yearbook scandal broke that he was one of people in a photograph showing a man in blackface standing next to a hooded figure in Ku Klux Klan garb, Northam backtracked. Upon reflection, he said, he did not believe that either of the individuals was him. Further, he suggested that the photograph might have been placed on his yearbook page by error. The report summarizes his thinking after he conferred with a Virginia Military Institute classmate, three EVMS classmates, and his girlfriend at the time.

The former VMI roommate, who is now a practicing dentist, told him it was not Governor Northam for several reasons. First, he told Governor Northam his teeth had never looked as good as the individual in blackface, and he did not think Governor Northam wore bowties or plaid pants. The former VMI roommate also noted that the person in blackface held beer in his right hand, whereas Governor Northam usually uses his left hand. One classmate told Governor Northam it was not him in the Photograph, and that the classmate was aware of several instances in the 1984 yearbook where pictures were misplaced. Other classmates told him the yearbook process was chaotic. Finally, Governor Northam’s girlfriend at the time told him she had never seen the Photograph.

Governor Northam also believes he is not in the Photograph based on the size of the individuals in the Photograph. He noted the person in blackface had much larger legs than he did in medical school, and the person in the KKK robes is much shorter than he is. Governor Northam commented that he would remember standing next to someone dressed in KKK robes. Further, Governor Northam states that he “remembered like it was yesterday” dressing up as Michael Jackson. Throughout our interview, Governor Northam stated he was “positive” it was not him in the Photograph.

When asked who might have been in the photograph, Northam professed that he did not know.

In support of Northam’s line of thinking, the McGuire Woods report found that the assembly of the yearbook was, at times, a chaotic process. Students handled the publication with only token oversight by faculty or staff. One student working on the 1984 yearbook commented that most students were exhausted at this late stage of medical school and had limited time to spend on the yearbook.

He only remembered ten to twelve students assisting with the process, and he remember[ed] calling other classmates and trying to convince them to help. … [The student] told us that there were boxes of yearbook-related materials, mostly unsealed envelopes with photographs, which were assembled by other students. [Another student] repeatedly described the process as chaotic, and assembled in bits and pieces. He does not believe that he or the other staff went through the yearbook to ensure the accuracy of the information or that photographs were in the correct place before publication. … He commended during our interview that the process was a “nightmare” and a “walk through hell.” … He concluded that it was possible a photograph could have fallen from one envelope into another, but stated the likelihood of something getting misplaced was not high, but also not impossible.

McGuire Woods found no way to either prove or disprove the theory that the photograph was placed on Northam’s page by error.

Arguments for Northam’s guilt

The photo depicts two people at a party drinking beer. Although the report does not say so in so many words, material in the document makes clear that (1) there was a party sub-culture at EVMS, (2) drinking was common, and (3) it was a common practice for students to submit photos from drinking parties to the yearbook. States the report: “The yearbooks with some frequency display photographs and content containing sexual innuendo, depictions of students drinking alcohol, and other conduct that may not be considered professional and which could be perceived as offensive.”

For whatever reason, the McGuire Woods investigative team made the decision not to summarize the content in the report. This strikes me as a clear oversight. Students, even medical school students, tend to be young and immature, and they often do things that larger society finds offensive or scandalous. They do things and celebrate actions that they find cringe-worthy later in life. To ascertain whether or not Northam participated in a drinking-and-partying crowd, it would be helpful to know as much about the drinking-and-partying sub-culture. In interviews with McGuire Woods, Northam downplayed any association with drinking and partying.

When asked about his social life at EVMS, Northam claimed to have had little interest in social events. He described going to a retreat the first week of medical school at a hotel in Bridgewater.

He said classmates were doing things he did not condone, like stealing drinks from a vending machine, and taking a canoe off the roof of a family’s car and placing the canoe in a pool, and he thought, “these weren’t my kind of people.” …

Governor Northam said that there was no question that people in his class were big partiers. He did not like studying and was very easily distracted, but he and his roommate would stay longer at the library longer than anyone else. … The party life was not a part of who he was.

Remarkably, the report neglects to ponder the significance of the single quote that Northam thought worthy of inclusion on his yearbook page: “There are more old drunks than old doctors in this world so I think I’ll have another beer.”

To any sentient being, that would indicate that Northam saw himself as a party guy. Yet, as far as can be told from the content of the report, the investigators did ask Northam what he meant by that quote, nor is there any indication in the report they asked Northam’s classmates about his social life.

There are hints in the report that EVMS students exhibited “attitude.” Former students talked about P.O.E.T.S. events that stood for “Piss on Everything, Tomorrow’s Saturday.” These campus events were designed to bring students and faculty members together. The administration used money from vending machine sales to purchase a keg of beer for each event. Most people had only one or two beers, so these administration-sanctioned events saw no poor behavior, says McGuire Woods. The point that McGuire Woods misses is that the P.O.E.T.S. name typifies the flippant, almost in-your-face attitude of many students. The fact that faculty and staff permitted the name to be used is indicative of a laissez-faire attitude on their part as well.

A common way for young people — especially young men — to express “attitude” is to flout societal norms. While dressing in blackface was not the cardinal sin it is regarded today, it still was widely regarded as inappropriate, in conflict with adult norms in the academic setting. Indeed, in the 1980s, depictions of blackface and other racially offensive material was not uncommon:

Yearbooks from the 1980s feature several blackface photographs, which are most prevalent in the 1984 and 1985 yearbooks. This includes the Photograph on Governor Northam’s page in the 1984 yearbook in the person in blackface wearing a hat, sunglasses, plaid pants, and jacket, and another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robes. Other photographs include the photograph of a student in black face, dressed as Diana Ross, which was included in both the 1984 and 1985 yearbooks. A group photograph on another personal page in the 1984 yearbook shows three men in blackface dressed and performing as The Supremes.

Other photographs and content in the 1980s yearbooks includes a headshot of a professor wearing dark glasses with the caption “Ray Charles,” and students dressed as Native Americans with the caption “Ugh, firewater causes Bell’s palsy” in 1981. There is a photograph of a faculty member holding a mug that says, “We can’t get FIRED! Slaves have to be sold” in the 1984 and 1985 yearbooks, and a quote under a photograph on a personal page in 1985 stating “Negro Triad.” There are also multiple photographs of individuals in costume, wearing Latin American, Asian, or Middle Eastern dress. The 1980s yearbooks contain many photographs and captions with sexual scenarios that could be considered offensive and/or sexist. Most of this material is included in yearbooks from 1980 to 1985.

In summary:

  • There was a drinking-and-partying culture at EVMS in which participants frequently dressed in costume, including blackface.
  • In contrast to his recollection 30 years later, Northam’s own words jokingly indicate that he enjoyed drinking.
  • Publication of “racy” photos of a sexual or ethnic nature was fairly common in the yearbook in the 1980s.

None of constitutes proof. But this context makes it easy to believe that Northam drank, partied, dressed up in costume, and/or hung out with people who partied and dressed in costume.


In the initial phases of the blackface scandal, the media made much of the fact that Northam went by the nickname of “Coonman” at VMI, on the assumption that the reference to “coon,” a derogatory name for blacks, was racist. That was one plausible interpretation of the nickname, but there might have been others. At the time, I urged people to withhold judgment until more was known about the derivation of the nickname.

The McGuire Woods investigators interviewed Northam extensively but apparently never asked him how he got that nickname. That strikes me as an extraordinary oversight. If Northam had proffered an alternative explanation — one of his buddies thought his face resembled that of a coon dog, for instance — we would be more inclined to a benign interpretation of events. But if he had no explanation, one would feel more justified in imputing a racist connotation to the nickname and believing that Northam was comfortable either appearing in blackface or submitting a photograph of friends in blackface.

Questions unasked

In summary, I am inclined to think that the yearbook photo depicts either Northam or his party pals. I acknowledge that there is no proof, just a preponderance of the evidence. Sadly, the McGuire Woods report didn’t delve as deeply into the issue as it could have, and it left important questions unaddressed.

I do have a theory about the photograph that could tie up some loose ends. I haven’t seen it postulated anywhere else, and I will lay it out in the next post.

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14 responses to “Blackface Scandal: The Case for and Against Northam”

  1. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    It is impossible to prove a negative, but it is possible to provide plenty of evidence to cause doubt. The paucity of information supporting Northam’s claims that it is not him, he knows not who it is, he didn’t approve the photo’s use, and he knew nothing about it until this past winter, is hard to ignore. The questions not asked and the people not interviewed are obvious. We do have one clear account from a witness who remembers reviewing the yearbook with Northam back at graduation time. How may other times did they find somebody was pranked with photos they didn’t submit on their personal pages? Hell, a high school yearbook staff might do that but even then, somebody would know. A graduate professional school?

    Northam is governor, I see no reason he should resign, there is absolutely no reason to believe he harbors racist feelings, and I’m just as ready as I was months ago to say forgive and move on. He is holding his last elected office. But the ring of truth is simply absent from this recent exercise. I have to assume EVMS was the real client here, and I fully expected the law firm’s public report to throw the best possible light on this.

    Fairfax’s claim that this report should cause people to think twice about conclusions on his situation is ridiculous. What it does is raise the question about his employer’s report, and whether anybody will get to read that. The reasons he should resign are just as strong as they ever were, stronger even in the absence of a real criminal probe.

    One of my favorite books, which started as a series of TV scripts, is “Yes, Minister.” In that one learns all about the many ways an investigation or blue ribbon commission can be used to evade rather than find truth, with the public perhaps confused if not deceived. I think the authors could add a new chapter on how it’s done by Virginia Democrats.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      I agree with Steve, and would add: Should McGuire Woods have declined to investigate and report on this matter, citing an array of obvious conflicts of interests involving other clients and itself?

    2. “We do have one clear account from a witness who remembers reviewing the yearbook with Northam back at graduation time.”

      You’re quite right, Steve. In my rush to post the story before noon, I neglected to include that testimony. Here it is:

      “We also interviewed an alumnus who attended EVMS in the same timeframe as Governor Northam. This individual recalled talking to Governor Northam outside of the EVMS library in the weeks before the class of 1984 graduated. This alumn[us] told us he and Governor Northam flipped through the 1984 yearbook together and that included looking together at Governor Northam’s personal page. This individual did not recall the Governor having any reaction to the photographs on the personal page that would suggest the Governor thought there was an error on h is page. He did remember discussing the photograph featuring the car on Governor Northam’s page. This former student told us that he did not believe Governor Northam was in the Photograph.”

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    There is no question that Northam screwed up and CLEARLY at that time in his life he had not contemplated politics as a subsequent career, at least one might have thought that!

    But what I would like to know is his conduct with regard to race in the rest of his life. Has he belonged to groups who have a reputation of being racist? Has he been involved in other racist behaviors?

    In the context of his whole life – has he consistently conducted himself as a racist? Did he refuse to treat black patients? Did he belong to white supremacists groups? Did he support policies that blacks consider racist? Like Civil War symbols and memorials?

    When I look at this issue, I see it as more of an aberration – something different from how he has conducted himself largely in the rest of his life.

    Did the school he attend have black students or was it lily white? Surely those who attended the school have remembrances and impressions of the school environment and whether racism was typical and standard or not.

    The Partisans won’t agree but all that demonstrates is that they are partisans.

    If I’m wrong, I’m sure others will bring up other instances – but I think the Michael Jackson thing was not one although I’d be curious to know if in that event there were black folks or was it an all-white event.

    1. Steve Haner Avatar
      Steve Haner

      Larry, as I noted in his defense back at the time, he attended the public high school and participated in sports and clubs with black classmates. There was at least one prominent white seg academy in that area, but he didn’t go there.

    2. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Three of my biggest problems is not that Northam wore blackface. It’s that he wore it as an adult who was months away from an M.D. degree. It shows no judgment. Keep in mind that, before his denials, Northam admitted it was him in the photo wearing blackface.

      My second problem is, knowing that he appeared in blackface, he OK’d negative ads calling Gillespie a racist. People who live in glass houses!

      And finally, rather than make personal amends for his conduct, to which he admitted, he’s trying to use his gubernatorial powers to make amends. Moreover, he’s called Virginia’s government institutionally racist and effectively called Warner, Kaine and McDonnell racist. Northam is totally without conscience and any sense of personal responsibility and completely narcissistic and will find himself deep into the lower levels of hell for all eternity. With his scruples, it’s very fortunate that Northam never killed anyone or he’d would have been a serial killer. He cares for no one but himself.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        I won’t try to change TMT’s mind but I think Gillespie was running racists ads in the campaign and Northam called him out on it.

        but the third thing – Consider the connection between being a racist individual separate from acting in racists ways in doing his job. Consider a person who is a racist but Governs.

        So most of us DO want that aspect addressed by ANY elected Gov who has been accused of racist behavior. We want to know that he’s not going to govern as a racist and support racist policies – so it’s hard to separate the two, ergo, Northam wants to provide that assurance – as Governor.

  3. TBill Avatar

    OK I was wondering if this news item was going to get BR coverage.

    I am checking to see if the WTOP Ask the Gov radio program of Jan 30, 2019 was the last such program (or not). That was when the Gov got into hot water on 3rd term abortion and that apparently precipitated the whole affair that later bled over to Lt. Gov and Att Gen. Looks like there was plan for a May 8 show, let me check.

    1. Steve Haner Avatar
      Steve Haner

      He has not done the WRVA show since this broke, and I have no memory of any news coming out of WTOP either. I doubt WTOP is highlighting his absence, but WRVA’s host has done so several times. It’s not in the job description that he has to. Look, one thing the report did show conclusively is he has been badly, badly served by many advisers.

      1. TBill Avatar

        The May 8 WTOP date seems to show up on Google, but I am guessing it did not happen. Gov Hogan has never warmed up to the show, so it has mostly been the Ask the Va. Gov show in recent years

  4. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    The investigation was so flawed that even the WaPo did a follow-up article.
    School officials knew about Northam yearbook photo
    Morrison, Jim. The Washington Post; Washington, D.C. [Washington, D.C]25 May 2019: B.2.

    In the spring of 2017, Ralph Northam’s Democratic primary campaign for governor was in full swing when top administrators at the Eastern Virginia Medical School came to its president, Richard Homan, with incendiary information.

    Years earlier, an alumni affairs director paging through a 1984 yearbook on a table while preparing for an event had come across a photograph on Northam’s page that shocked her, a picture of one person in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan garb. She decided to remove it so attendees would not be offended.

    Now, though, with Northam running for governor, administrators, including Brant Cox, Homan’s chief of staff, showed him the page for the first time and asked if EVMS had an obligation to do something about it, including notifying Northam, according to the report of an investigation into the photograph released on Wednesday.

    “It was an extraordinarily offensive and inflammatory picture,” Homan said in an interview.
    It was also not the first time he’d seen those kinds of pictures. Three years earlier, Homan’s vice president for diversity and inclusion had shown him 2013 yearbook photos of three white students dressed in Confederate uniforms, standing in front of a Confederate battle flag. Homan ended the publication of yearbooks.

    He decided the best action in the interests of the school was no action. EVMS would not get involved.

    “In no way did I want to be perceived as having put any weight on the scales of an election,” he said Thursday from Long Island, N.Y., where he was at a wedding. “That was not my job. My job is to manage and grow and improve the academic institution for which I’m responsible.”

    What Homan didn’t know until February of this year is that his predecessor, Harry T. Lester, also knew about the Northam photo. Lester, who served from 2005 to 2013, also decided to do nothing.

    During Lester’s tenure, others knew about the yearbook page, including the assistant vice president of marketing and communications, the associate vice president for the Office of Development, and the alumni affairs director.
    Vincent Rhodes, the assistant vice president for marketing and communications, was among those who informed Lester about the yearbook page. He could not recall the year, but said it was during a previous campaign of Northam’s, who first entered politics in 2008. Lester’s conclusion was simple: stay out of politics, Rhodes said.
    Lester did not respond to texts, emails or voice mails left for him.
    EVMS, founded in Norfolk in 1973, is an usual public-private hybrid. Less than 10 percent of its current budget – about $26 million – came from the state. But seven of the 17 members who serve on its Board of Visitors are appointed by the governor and the legislature.

    Homan said he did not tell the Board of Visitors after he saw the Northam yearbook page. He said he consulted the school’s attorney briefly, and she did not disagree with his thinking that it would be wrong to make the image public during the heated 2017 campaign for governor. He also didn’t feel the need to consult outside counsel.

    “I didn’t feel it rose to that level,” he said.

    Investigators included Homan’s reasoning in their report, which was commissioned by the school and headed by Richard Cullen, a senior partner at McGuireWoods and a former Virginia attorney general.

    The investigation could not determine the identity of either individual in the photograph. Northam originally took responsibility for appearing in the photo after it was published on Feb. 1 by a conservative website. But then a day later said he no longer believed it was him and could not explain why it appeared on his 1984 yearbook page, although he did admit he wore blackface for a dance contest that same year.

    Virginia House Majority Leader Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said the school should have considered letting an outside authority decide whether to disclose the page.

    “It seems like being emotionally and financially invested in someone and then being in a position about whether to reveal something so incendiary should have given them pause,” Gilbert said. “I can’t speak to their motivation, but it just seems very unfortunate that people knew about that over many years and it just sat there unnoticed by anyone else while the governor’s star continued to rise.”

    Asked to comment on the notion that by doing nothing, he was putting his thumb on the scale, Homan demurred.

    “Those yearbooks were publicly available for years,” he said. “They were in the hands of contemporaries for years. The press had access if they chose to review them,” he said. “I didn’t feel there was an obligation for me to disclose the information to Dr. Northam personally.”

    Homan joined EVMS as dean of medicine in 2012 and became president in 2013 after serving as president and dean of Drexel University’s College of Medicine in Philadelphia. His current contract at EVMS, which pays him $828,115 annually, began on Jan. 1, 2017, and runs through 2021 with two-year renewal terms after that.

    After the Northam page became public in February, Homan said he spoke to Lester, who told him he did not get involved for the same reasons.
    “To make that public at any time would have had significant political implications. We’re not political so there was a decision not to do it,” he added. “His thought processes – I talked to him after the fact – were similar to mine.”

    Lester, who has donated nearly $350,000 to political candidates over the years, gave $19,500 to Northam for his run for governor and $5,000 for his campaign for lieutenant governor before that, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

    Homan donated $1,000 to Northam’s gubernatorial run and $1,000 to his bid for lieutenant governor. He also gave $6,000 to the campaigns of Del. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk) from 2013 to 2018. Homan gave another $10,000 to Northam’s inaugural committee, a donation that Rhodes, the EVMS spokesman, said was actually from the school for tickets to events for EVMS administrators.

    Homan said any political donations he made as a private citizen had no bearing on his decisions as a school leader.

    In the two years leading up to when the photo became international news, Homan didn’t think about it coming to light. “I assumed other people may have seen it,” he said. “I assumed his classmates and peers in the years before and after might have seen it.”

    David Arias, the EVMS rector and a board member for eight years, said he didn’t think Homan or Lester needed to tell the board about the page. He also noted that Homan has focused on improving diversity and inclusion at the school since his arrival. “When all this broke, I thought it was surreal because in my opinion we are very inclusive and very diverse,” he said.
    Earlier this year, the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education selected EVMS to receive the organization’s Institutional Excellence Award. The award is given annually to a single institution to celebrate the school’s progress in sustaining innovative diversity efforts on campus.

    Homan, meanwhile, stands by his decision.

    “I did this with the intent of doing the right things for the right reasons. I was in a very difficult situation when I saw the picture initially,” he said. “I believe I came to the right decision in my role as the president and dean of the school of medicine of EVMS.”

  5. TBill Avatar

    Also note former Va. Gov TMac had to end his plans to enter the Presidential race as the 20-xth Democrat candidate…actually I am somewhat of a fan, and I thought he might have been the best candidate.

    Not sure why TMac pulled out, but it would have highlighted that he said on national TV all these guys should immediately resign, and they all rebuffed him. So running for POTUS it would re-litigate that issue and TMac would look weak for leading wrongly in that instance, and put further visibility on the Virginia’s blue leadership fiasco.

  6. djrippert Avatar

    Virginians from outside the plantation culture of the state just don’t know how this works. Northam’s family was a long time slaveholding / plantation operating clan. Once the Civil War ended the family’ predictable economic decline began. However, that doesn’t matter to the Virginia elite. As long as your grandfather and father could be cogs in the racist and corrupt Byrd Machine you were an “insider” in Virginia, even if your kids had to attend public schools. The few insiders from the Eastern Shore like Northam mingled with the greater number of insiders in Hampton Roads and the “blot out the sun” level of locust like insiders from Richmond. Good Ole Boys wearing blackface and klan robes and holding nicknames like Coonman. Their mentality can be summarized as, “We’ll dip this big ole bucket into the public’s funds then we’ll all have a dink. As long as us good ole boys stick together nothin’ bad will happen.”

    So, the slimeballs from EVMS knew that a major public figure was quite likely a serious racist but mum’s the word. Illumination and knowledge are fine talking points for academics but not when discussing one of their own. Ralphie slimed around with the rest of Virginia’s bourbon and branch water plantation set and eventually wormed his way into to becoming governor. Hail fellow well met.

    So, when the typical behavior of one of the plantation set (blackface, klan robes and Coonman) became manifest … what did the plantation set do? Hired McGuire Woods, the plantation set’s favorite law firm, to investigate. Now, McGuire Woods does a hot and heavy business serving both the plantation set’s special interests in Virginia as well as the plantation set themselves – particularly those plantation set members in the Clown Show in Richmond. Everybody gets paid. So, it’s no surprise that the plantation set’s in-house legal department found nothing of interest to report. I’m shocked, shocked I tell you.

    There’s only one answer this November ….

    Throw. The. Bums. Out.

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Good comments on McGuire Woods. I can’t believe that a firm of this caliber could not have resolved the issue, unless its goal was not to resolve the issue. The question remains: Will prostituting a well-regarded law firm cause any non-Virginia clients to move elsewhere for legal services or for non-good-old-boy/gal attorneys to leave the firm and take clients with them?

      If I were general counsel of a company using McGuire Woods, I’d be looking elsewhere.

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