RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam canceled plans Wednesday to launch his “reconciliation tour” at a historically black college after a student leader asked him to stay away for now, saying the governor’s blackface scandal would detract from the civil rights commemoration he was supposed to attend.
The governor had been scheduled to visit Richmond’s Virginia Union University Thursday as it honors the Richmond 34 — students arrested in 1960 for holding a sit-in at the whites-only lunch counter at Thalhimers department store.
In a letter to Northam this week, Student Government Association President Jamon K. Phenix suggested it would be better for the governor not to come.
“We are in support of honest conversation around race and reconciliation to move our great state forward,” Phenix, 21, said in his letter. “However, we feel as though your attendance takes away from the historical significance of our commemoration of the Richmond 34.”
Elizabeth Johnson Rice, a prominent member of the Richmond 34, said she was “appalled” by Phenix’s effort to rebuff the governor during what she called his “healing and atonement” tour. She said Phenix never consulted the group and does not speak for it.
“I represent many who extend this invitation to you to come and witness and celebrate this 59th anniversary with us,” Rice wrote in her own letter to Northam. “We also want your presence to be a learning tool for atonement and the need for forgiveness for all of us.”
But in a message on Twitter Wednesday evening, Northam said he would bow out.
“I respect the wishes of the student body,” he wrote. “In lieu of my attendance, I will host the Richmond 34 at the Executive Mansion on Friday to honor their bravery and courage.”
In a letter he wrote to Phenix and posted on Twitter, Northam wrote, “I accept the Student Government Association’s invitation for future dialogue and honest conversation on issues of race, reconciliation, and equity.”
Northam has remained largely out of sight this month since controversy erupted over a racist photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page and his admission that he wore blackface in a dance contest that same year.
Resisting calls for his resignation, Northam has said he is determined to devote the remaining three years of his term to racial reconciliation. The Virginia Union event was intended to kick off that effort.
Phenix, a Democrat who said he worked the polls for Northam and his ticketmates from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Election Day 2017, took pains to strike a respectful tone in his letter.
“It is with pleasure that we extend an invitation for you to participate in a roundtable discussion and interview on ways we can all move Virginia forward,” he wrote, saying that such an event could take place at an unspecified later date.
Northam and Virginia’s two other top officeholders are trying to dig their way out of an avalanche of scandals.
Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) has acknowledged appearing in blackface as a college freshman, while Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) is strongly denying allegations that he sexually assaulted two women.
Phenix, saying Northam had committed “a heinous act,” made no apologies for taking a tough stand against Thursday’s planned appearance.
“This is not a lullaby for us. This is a battle cry,” Phenix said. “Students are upset about his presence here and, frankly, they have a right to be.”
Rice, a retired science teacher, was a 19-year-old Virginia Union student when she and others were arrested for trying to get served at the lunch counter and tea room of the downtown Richmond department store.
Over the years, she has coordinated efforts to keep the 34 in touch with one other and to win recognition for the group. She said it would be a mistake to exclude Northam from an event meant to promote racial progress.
“I believe that people deserve a second chance, and he is trying to make right what was done wrong,” Rice said.
This is a developing story. It has been updated.