RICHMOND — Virginia first lady Pam Northam did not focus on black students as she handed out raw cotton during several back-to-back presentations on slavery at the Executive Mansion, several participants and their parents said in interviews Friday.
“Nobody was singled out,” said state Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City), whose teenage son took a tour of the mansion with others serving as pages in Virginia’s General Assembly.
Petersen was reacting to allegations made this week by a state employee whose daughter was in the page program. She alleged in a letter that Northam singled out three black students in a group of about 20 as she handed out cotton bolls and talked about imagining slavery.
The mother’s account quickly drew national and even international attention — the BBC ran a story headlined “Virginia’s first lady in cotton-picking race row” — because Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) have been embroiled in scandals involving their use of blackface as young men.
In all, about 100 legislative pages visited the mansion on Feb. 21 for a reception. They broke into smaller groups to tour the 200-year-old main house as well as an adjacent cottage that once served as a kitchen. Stationed in the kitchen, Northam handed out tobacco leaves and raw cotton bolls to each group and asked the students to imagine how hard it must have been for the enslaved workers to handle those rough agricultural products all day. A cotton boll includes the hard, sharp-edged protective case inside of which the cotton develops.
“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,” Leah Dozier Walker, who oversees the Office of Equity and Community Engagement at the state Department of Education, wrote to lawmakers and the office of the governor. “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.”
When the letter became public Wednesday, Northam’s office said the first lady did not single out the African American students and simply handed out the cotton to the students who were standing closest to her.
Walker said she stood by her daughter’s “perception of what occurred in the moment.”
“I do not expect for non black students or parents to understand the pain and suffering African Americans associate with cotton — or of being asked to relive the horrors associated with the racist institution of American slavery — even in a historical context,” she wrote in an email Friday night.
Some legislators, including Del. Marcia S. “Cia” Price (D-Newport News), have praised the student “for her courage in speaking out when a lot of times African Americans have not always had the opportunity to confront offenses in this way.”
Petersen, whose son was in the same tour group as Walker’s daughter, said he pressed his son for details when he picked him up after a band concert Thursday night.
“ ‘Did the first lady pass you out cotton balls?’ ” Petersen recalled asking him. “He explained it, ‘Everybody touched it. She made a point that it had prickers.’ ‘Were any people singled out?’ He said, ‘That did not happen.’ He could not have been more adamant.”
In all, 10 pages gave their accounts to The Washington Post, either directly or through their parents, most of whom did not permit their 13- and 14-year-olds to be interviewed because of their age. In four of those cases, the pages were in the same tour group as Walker’s daughter. The other six visited the kitchen with different groups on the same day.
In all 10 cases, the pages or their parents insisted that the first lady — a former science teacher — conducted their tours with sensitivity and with no special focus on the black pages.
“She didn’t pick out anything or anybody,” said Celina Harris, 13, of Chesapeake, a page who was in a different tour group from Walker’s daughter.
Celina, who is African American, said Northam passed around raw cotton bolls and tobacco leaves for the whole tour group to touch. In the case of her tour — one of perhaps four Northam led for pages that day — the first lady handed the cotton to a white page.
“When it came to the cotton part, she handed it to the nearest page and passed it around the room to everybody, and explained that the slaves had to pick cotton, and it was difficult for them because it was sharp,” Celina said. “She asked us to feel around the cotton. It wasn’t normal cotton balls that we use today. It was hard and prickly. . . . It was interesting. I didn’t see any problem with it at all. I don’t think learning about our history should be counted as offensive in any way. And it’s not like she purposely looked at me while talking about it, or any of the other black pages in the room.”
Resisting calls to resign over the blackface controversy, Gov. Northam has pledged to focus on racial reconciliation in his remaining three years in office. But the criticism over the first lady’s presentation about the house’s slave history — something she has long highlighted — shows what a minefield that territory can be.
“Traditionally, you’d give a tour of the mansion and say, ‘Look at this beautiful upholstery.’ And now they try to give a full historical tour, ‘This was built by slaves,’ ” Petersen said. “It’s kind of like damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If you try and incorporate alternative voices, suddenly you’re triggering someone. As opposed to if you’re breezing through like Better Homes and Gardens and you’re being oblivious or privileged.”
Sen. William M. Stanley Jr. (R-Franklin), said that his daughter was in the tour with Walker’s and that no one was targeted.
“The first lady’s intent was to show the horrors of slavery and to make sure everyone felt the pain they felt in some small measure,” Stanley said.
Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax) said his daughter, also a page, gave a similar account, although she was in a different tour group.
“I have also spoken to witnesses who were present and the *cotton situation* during the Page Governor’s Mansion tours did not happen at all the way it’s been portrayed in the press,” Surovell wrote on Facebook.