The questions engulfing Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam shook and angered African Americans across the state as they considered on Sunday how tightly Virginia — the capital of the Confederacy, a center of the slave trade — remains tied to its racist past.
Many said Northam must resign after a photo on his page of a medical school yearbook came to light showing two men, one in blackface and a second in a Ku Klux Klan uniform. Others called for mercy, saying no man should be judged by a single moment.
In conversations at churches, salons and coffee shops, African Americans disagreed about whether Northam must resign, but all voiced a sense of betrayal. In public office, Northam worked to expand Medicaid, the health program that serves the poor, and he helped to restore voting rights for felons, a policy that helps many black men. Many in the black community saw him as an ally, and as one of the good guys.
“It’s a real slap in the face. You pretend to be my friend, and you’re really not,” said Thomas Parham Jr., as he arrived for worship Sunday at the historic Alfred Street Baptist Church in Old Town Alexandria. It’s one thing, he said, to encounter a racist public official. It’s almost worse when it’s someone perceived to be an ally. “I’d rather know where you stand.”
Asked if he voted for Northam, Parham said, “Yes, unfortunately.”
If Northam resigns, it would mark a new and unexpected twist in Virginia’s long and troubled history with race. Northam would be replaced by Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, an African American Democrat who is the great-great-great-grandson of a slave, and who held a copy of the paper that in 1798 freed his ancestor, tucked into his coat pocket, on the day he was inaugurated.
Fairfax, a 39-year-old attorney first elected in 2017, may be best known for his silent protests, stepping off his spot on the dais in the state Senate during the annual tribute to Confederate leaders.
“It’s almost a historic benediction,” said Cornell William Brooks, a longtime Virginian, professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and former chief executive of the NAACP. “To have someone who is a descendant of the people who were maligned and demeaned and dehumanized by those pictures ascend to the office would be a historic benediction — good words at the end of a very bad story.”
Brooks was one of many African American leaders across the state calling on Northam to resign. Others included black lawmakers, activists and leaders of several NAACP chapters.
“Do I think these pictures reflect who he is today? Absolutely not,” said Joshua Cole, the president of the Stafford County NAACP, who is running for the House of Delegates this year. “If that was him back then, do I think he’s changed? Of course. But I think these pictures do put a stain on him as a governor. I think it would be best for us as a commonwealth and party for him to move aside and step down.”
Among churchgoers in Alexandria, the feelings were mixed.
“I don’t think an apology is good enough,” said Stedmen Washington, 29, of Alexandria. He said that the photo was shocking, that Northam should have known it would be blatantly offensive and that he should resign.
“This happened in the ’80s? That’s not that long ago,” said Merrick Williamson of Manassas. “If you don’t stand up when things happen, it’s going to happen again.”
His sister-in-law, Vivia Charles, said that on Saturday, at the salon she owns in Woodbridge, many women argued that one mistake should not necessarily end the governor’s career.
“Your life is more than a moment,” she said. “All of us agreed we don’t want to be judged by one thing they did. We have to look at their body of evidence.”
“If you want a second chance, give a second chance,” agreed Ruth Lawhorn of Fairfax. “That’s mercy and compassion.”
On Friday, when the photo became public, Northam apologized for appearing in it. But on Saturday, he held a nationally televised news conference in which he insisted that he was not in the photo, and that he believed there was a mix-up during production that caused someone else’s image to appear on his yearbook page.
Jerrold Lattimore, 63, a schoolteacher and onetime Richmond resident, said Northam’s actions were clearly wrong, and he is troubled by the governor’s changing story.
But Lattimore said that as a Christian he is called on to forgive, and he wants to look at the sweep of Northam’s life, not just this one photo. “To be honest, he’s been a good governor,” he said.
Others seemed exhausted by the entire matter.
“I don’t have emotion to be angry anymore,” said Damian Scott, 28, of Alexandria. “Just another day in America.”
Northam said Saturday that he wanted to remain in office and use the opportunity to force an honest, public discussion about race relations, hoping that it could help move his state forward.
The nation’s sorrowful history of race relations is particularly acute in Virginia, where 400 years ago the first ship of slaves arrived to what was then known as Point Comfort. In August, Northam visited the grave where descendants of the first slave born here are believed to be buried.
In the 1800s, Virginia became a center of the domestic slave trade. One of the commonwealth’s most important and celebrated leaders, President Thomas Jefferson, was a slave holder whose 1781 book, “Notes on the State of Virginia,” concluded: “The blacks . . . are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”
After the U.S. Supreme Court ordered that schools be desegregated, Virginia employed a strategy of “massive resistance” and outright refused to allow black and white children to be schooled together.
Richmond, the onetime capital of the Confederacy, is still home to Monument Avenue, where statues of Confederate Gens. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and Robert E. Lee stand today. And in 2017, neo-Nazis chose Charlottesville for their “Unite the Right” rally, which ended with one woman dead.
But Virginia was also the first state in the nation to elect a black governor, L. Douglas Wilder, in 1989. And it twice voted for the first black president, electing and reelecting Barack Obama.
It all makes Northam’s actions even more troubling, said Ravi Perry, who chairs the political science department at Virginia Commonwealth University. He noted that in 1984, when Northam’s medical school yearbook was published, Wilder had begun his successful statewide campaign for lieutenant governor.
“You would think, frankly, that a native son of Virginia, who spent all of his adult life in this state, would understand that history,” he said.
For some, it’s left sadness and confusion and a sense that they may not have known Northam as well as they thought.
“Honestly, he was in med school, so he’s not a child,” said Pierre Hartgrove, 55, who was picking up an order for delivery from Chipotle in Alexandria. “I thought he was a good guy, actually. Does he not really like blacks? All these years, did he get the votes from us, did he say to his buddies, ‘Guess what? I got the Negroes’ votes!’ We don’t know.”