The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

On Virginia’s rural Eastern Shore, Northam’s views of race took root

A cascade of scandals rocked the Democratic Party in Virginia in 2019 after a racist photo was discovered on Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page. (Video: Lee Powell, Patrick Martin, Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)
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His reputation in tatters, his career hanging by a thread, Ralph Northam went home to the Eastern Shore. Where his ancestors owned slaves. Where his father wouldn’t tolerate racist behavior.

Virginia’s governor, abandoned by his own party, accused of racism by many of his constituents, traveled to his family homestead near the Chesapeake Bay — a place apart from the rest of Virginia, yet a place where the history of black and white is as painfully enduring as anywhere.

In Onancock, where Northam grew up on an isolated road, on property where his family raised sheep, many of the future governor’s childhood friends left the public schools as soon as they were integrated. Northam stayed and by his senior year was one of two white boys out of the 12 basketball players in the high school team’s photo.

Now 59, Northam (D) stands before his constituents as a marked man. He says he will not resign, but even his allies doubt he can survive the revelation that his medical school yearbook page shows someone in blackface and someone in a Ku Klux Klan outfit.

Northam says he’s not in that photo, but he is no innocent: He did once wear blackface, as a costume in a dance contest. The governor says he is a product of a state and a country where racial hatred is both a nagging scar and a present danger. But he believes he is no symbol of that ugly past. He believes he is an example of change.

Northam says he wants to focus on racial equity for the rest of his term

Politicians live and die on their origin stories. They were or weren’t the ones who lied about chopping down a cherry tree, or were born in a log cabin, or started out with millions from their father.

Northam’s story starts on a narrow peninsula of coastal villages where many families trace their local lineage back centuries, through slavery, Jim Crow, massive resistance against integration, and the civil rights movement.

In August 1907, a race riot shook Onancock. Shots were fired, a black man was badly beaten. And although a large group of white men burned and shot bullets into black-owned shops, no whites were arrested.

Two-thirds white and one-third black, Northam’s 1,200-person hometown in Accomack County is a place where people often speak of relations between the races as superficially cordial. Yet it is also a place, like much of America, where even today blacks and whites live very much apart.

In the places that helped form Northam’s attitudes, there was little debate about white people who occasionally put on blackface. In Onancock and at Virginia Military Institute (VMI), where Northam went to college, and at Eastern Virginia Medical School, where he trained to be a pediatrician, some whites in the 1970s and 1980s saw blackface as a way to express a racist worldview. But others viewed it, if they thought about it at all, as a benign comic gesture, akin to wearing a fat suit.

Blackface is white supremacy as fashion — and it’s always been in season

The white hood of the Ku Klux Klan, however, has been a clear and searing symbol of white supremacist beliefs for more than a century.

And where Northam grew up, the Klan was not something seen just in the movies.

When Jack Johnson became one of the first black teachers at a white high school in Accomack County in 1968, he found the letters “KKK” “written all over that school . . . I mean, in big letters. They had to sand blast it to take the ‘KKK’ off.”

Northam came up in an era of change — the overt, legally imposed change of desegregation in schools and employment, and a more organic change in demographics and attitudes. Jesse Jackson, the black civil rights leader, mounted a serious campaign for the Democratic nomination for president in 1984, the year Northam’s medical school yearbook was published. In Virginia, Jackson won the caucus vote, defeating the eventual nominee, Walter Mondale. The next year, L. Douglas Wilder, a veteran state legislator, became Virginia’s first black statewide officeholder when he was elected lieutenant governor.

In Northam’s youth, change sometimes seemed real and deep. Johnson saw that when, in the 1970s, he had a student who was a member of the Klan and spoke about it, even openly wore its emblem.

“He had transferred from an all-white private school,” Johnson said. “The kid walked around with a stick. When kids asked him why, he said it was a ‘n----- knocker.’ But the thing of it is, his whole philosophy of life changed once he got to know me. Racism is really ignorance.”

Yet some people changed little, if at all. In Northam’s VMI yearbook, the formal portrait of a senior of Asian descent is accompanied by his nicknames: “Chunk, Chink, Chuuunnnngg.”

Photos of blackface, KKK robes and nooses lurk alongside portraits in yearbooks


In Onancock, a bayside town where the sidewalks were made of oyster shells, the Northams, conservative in manner and moderate in politics, were considered liberals when it came to race, according to longtime residents.

An old family friend, Stewart Buckle, left Onancock High School to attend a private white academy created after desegregation in the late 1960s.

"There was a feeling that if blacks came into the school system, they were going to lower the quality of the school," Buckle said.

His friend Ralph stayed, and "I never heard of anything from Ralph or his brother Tom that was derogatory," Buckle said. "Now, everybody tells an off-color joke about Jews or homosexuals or blacks — that's just the nature of our society. But I never heard anything like that from them."

Blacks and whites attended separate churches, led separate social lives. From elementary school through college, Northam went to schools where integration was new, where white children and black children were finding their way through a thicket of conventions and silent antagonisms that had festered for centuries.

The Northams’ neighbors were all white, said Sonda Dawes, who lived next door. In the restaurants in town, she recalled, you never saw black people.

Young Ralph worked as a bag boy at the old Meatland grocery store, where people of all races shopped.

Ralph’s father, Wescott Northam, was a judge and a man of few words, but people knew he had a harsh view of racist behavior and would not tolerate epithets, longtime residents said. It was his father who finally told Ralph — during his 2017 campaign for governor — that his great-grandfather and great-great grandfather both owned slaves.

Virginia was the cradle of American slavery, the first place in the newly colonized land where human beings were bought and sold. Yet the state is also where American ideals of equality and freedom were first codified. The Northam ancestors freed slaves in 1858 and 1863, historical records show.

Race, Northam said in an interview Saturday, “was not really something that we talked about.” He described his childhood home as “an environment of equality” but added, “I don’t think it’s any question that I grew up with racial insensitivities.”

Even before schools were desegregated, Northam said, he had black friends who came to his house to play basketball, baseball and football.

“It was kind of a gathering area for the kids,” he said. “So we had a lot of good times there.”


Northam was in sixth grade, and his childhood friend J. Tom Edmonds was in fourth, when Accomack County schools were integrated.

“There were black and there were white schools,” said Edmonds, now an eye surgeon in southeastern Virginia. “. . . And one year, we were all lumped in together.”

Edmonds and Northam were placed in a predominantly black school, South Accomack Elementary, where Edmonds said he felt the need “to learn to take a back seat and just accept that I was a newcomer.”

He recalled a moment when a group of black students taunted his white friend and cut his long hair with scissors. But he also remembers befriending two black students who helped him adapt.

Northam “was going through the same thing,” Edmonds said. “In the long run, it opened up our eyes and made us better people. In the short run, it caused a lot of anxiety.”

After sixth grade, Edmonds’s parents enrolled him in an all-white school, Broadwater Academy, telling him he’d have a better chance to get into college.

Northam said he could not recall any family discussion about whether to switch.

“I just did whatever, basically, I was told,” he said, noting that his father was a prosecutor. “So he was in public service, and I think he really wanted to make sure that we stayed in public schools.”

‘Plaid pants’ theory doesn’t solve mystery of Northam’s yearbook photo

He started at Onancock High three years after it opened its doors to black children under threat of a lawsuit by the U.S. Justice Department. He was in the academic program, populated mostly by whites, while many blacks were in the school’s vocational program. In his senior year, Northam and two black girls were dubbed the class’s “most dignified” students, according to the yearbook.

One of those women, Janet Conquest, now an elementary school teacher, was surprised to see Northam end up in politics; she’d always seen him as “a good guy, because he was pretty quiet and I was quiet, too. . . . He didn’t stand out.”

Before integration, Conquest recalled, there were separate public bathrooms for “white” and “colored” near the factory where her mother worked pressing shirts, and an all-white pool in the nearby town of Onley. She never did learn to swim.

Black kids and white kids rarely socialized outside of school, and Conquest felt watched when she went into stores.

“As a child, some things felt dangerous, and you knew you had to stay away,” she said.

Inside the high school, life could seem smoother. Terry Smoot, Northam’s earth science classmate under Mrs. Smith, one of four black teachers in the 1977 yearbook, said there were few confrontations over race there.

One night in their senior year, though, Smoot, Northam, a black boy and a white girl drove to Richmond for a model general assembly convention. Northam was to play the role of attorney general; Smoot and the others were delegates.

The 1960s Impala they were in overheated. Pulled over along Interstate 64, the three boys hopped a fence and approached a home to ask for water to fill the radiator.

“The woman wouldn’t open the door,” and would speak only through a back window, Smoot said. “I don’t know what she was thinking for sure, but there was a black student with us. It was my impression that was it.”

In 1984, the same year Northam graduated medical school, Samuel H. Cooper Jr. ran for clerk of the court, becoming the first black man in Accomack County elected to public office. Some white residents who came into his office refused to make eye contact, he recalled.

“As human beings we do not like change,” said Cooper, 64, who remains in office more than three decades later. “And my being here was a big change.”

Friends, neighbors and schoolmates — liberal and conservative, black and white — rallied around Northam last week, not simply because he is from their town, but because they believe he is not what his yearbook page implies.

Jesse Poulson, who was Northam’s typing teacher, heard about the photo and “couldn’t wrap my mind around it, because I did not see that Ralph Northam. When he was elected, I said, ‘Oh Lord, I hope they don’t ruin him.’ ”

Poulson, who is African American, moved from the county’s all-black school to Onancock in the first year of full integration. Having heard other teachers talk about the tensions they expected between white and black students, he decided to do what he could to help integration work.

“Young people cluster,” he said. “They’d naturally segregate themselves. I wanted to make sure that everybody had an opportunity to mix; therefore, I assigned the seats. . . . And as such, I didn’t have problems.”

There were few overtly racist acts, but Poulson saw things. He often moved around his classroom, reviewing students’ work. When someone was doing well, he’d pat them on the shoulder.

One white student didn’t like that.

“As I was walking away from this young man, he took his hand and used it to brush off his shoulder,” Poulson recalled. “I said, ‘I know who you are now.’ ”

During Northam’s high school years, someone bestowed on him the nickname “Coonman,” a moniker that could have reflected his rural upbringing, or a racial slur. A former classmate, Rob Leatherbury, thinks he might have come up with the name, but said he can’t recall where it came from.

Northam followed Leatherbury to college at VMI, which students from that time remember as a place where racial animosities were rarely open and blacks and whites bonded over the rigors of an unforgiving environment.

“The first year is trying to stay alive physically,” said Oscar T. Arauco, a cadet during Northam’s time there who is Latino. “The second year, you’re trying to stay alive academically. It’s supposed to be hard. It was not a place where background made much of a difference. Everyone was treated equally well and equally poorly — poorly because it was a military school.”

Northam’s VMI roommate, Howard Conduff, recalled being with him in Army ROTC summer camp in Fort Bragg, N.C., in 1980. They were headed home for the Fourth of July weekend. A black woman in Northam’s platoon who also lived on the Shore didn’t have a ride.

Conduff, who is white, was driving his “little ol’ red Camaro” and said there wasn’t enough room for the woman. Northam insisted she come along.

“She ended up going with us, and that’s a great example of Ralph Northam,” Conduff said. “We sang and had a good ol’ time.”

Francis L. Counselman, a former medical school classmate of Ralph Northam, reacted Feb. 6 to the yearbook photo controversy plaguing the Virginia governor. (Video: Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

Medical school students are often well into their 20s, yet at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, collegiate antics mixed in with the grueling hours of study. The yearbook for Northam’s class shows students dressed as giant Crayola crayons, Mr. Peanut, clowns and in more risque outfits, such as a yearbook staffer posing as a gunman with a woman who looked like she’d stepped out of a brothel.

The book also shows three men in drag — and blackface — posing as the Supremes.

Being black there was not much different from being black in America, said Horatio “Ray” Millin, who overlapped with Northam at the school and headed its black student group.

“EVMS is a slice of American culture . . . and American culture has racism as its primary thread,” said Millin, 67, a native of the Virgin Islands who is now a psychiatrist in Louisiana.

Millin recalled black and white students sitting separately at Brannigan’s diner, downing black bean soup, burgers and beers. Friends say it was sometimes hard to get Northam to put aside his studies and go there.

Northam’s medical school roommate, Rob Marsh, who had served as a medic in the military, decorated their apartment in Norfolk with three flags — the Stars and Stripes, Virginia’s state flag and a POW/MIA black banner. A visiting classmate asked Marsh and Northam about a symbol that wasn’t on their walls.

“How come you guys don’t have the rebel flag?” the classmate said.

The roommates looked at each another. Northam responded: “Because that war is over.”

Accomack County remains deeply conservative. Northam lost the county to Republican Ed Gillespie in 2017, and Donald Trump trounced Hillary Clinton there in 2016.

For the past 13 years, Northam has attended First Baptist Church of Capeville, a largely African American congregation about 40 miles down the Shore from Onancock. Northam approached the pastor there, the Rev. Kelvin Jones, shortly before making his first run for a state Senate seat.

“We sat down as two men, one who happened to be black and one who happened to be white,” Jones recalled.

Since then, Northam has been a steady and devoted presence, Jones said. He and his wife are among a handful of white families in the church.

The races still live separate lives in many ways, the pastor said, though they come together to reflect and celebrate on occasions like Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“But I don’t know that any great strides are made out of those gatherings,” he said. “What changes afterward?”

Yearbooks are snapshots of a time, their pages full of pictures that summon memories of proud moments and embarrassing choices.

The final spread in Northam’s high school yearbook, the 1977 edition of the Trident, contains a single, two-page photo of a lush sunset, framed by two couples, each shown in silhouette.

On the left page, what appears to be a white couple face each other, holding hands. The right page shows what looks like a black couple in a similar pose.

Reinhard reported from Onancock. Gregory S. Schneider in Richmond and Aaron C. Davis, Fenit Nirappil, Neena Satija, and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.