Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D), center, prays with Michelle Thomas, president of the Loudoun County chapter of the NAACP, and Leesburg Town Council member Ron Campbell at the conclusion of a meeting at Mount Zion United Methodist Church. (H. Darr Beiser/For The Washington Post)

Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring, trying to move past his admission that he wore blackface at a party when he was 19, told a gathering of African American leaders that Virginia needs to reckon with its painful history around race.

At Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Leesburg on Thursday night, Herring shared strategies to attract more judges of color, eliminate Confederate symbols from public spaces and reduce hate crimes.

“Virginia has to deal more honestly with its past,” the Democrat told a crowd of about 50, which was billed as an interfaith gathering and also included Jewish and Muslim leaders. He recited the state’s role in slavery, the Civil War and Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation.

“We also have to seek out and take advantage of opportunities to tell the history of African Americans in our Commonwealth; the many things that African Americans have voluntarily and involuntarily accomplished, built and contributed,” Herring said.

The discussion was part of an effort by Herring to restore credibility with African Americans in the wake of his blackface admission, which came in February, days after a racist photo on the medical school yearbook page of Gov. Ralph Northam (D) became widely known.

Northam initially apologized for the photo but then said it wasn’t him, although he admitted that he wore blackface to imitate Michael Jackson for a 1984 dance contest. Those developments, combined with sexual assault allegations against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D), have rocked state politics in a pivotal election year.


Audience members listen as Herring talks about ways to attack racial inequity. (H. Darr Beiser/For The Washington Post)

Public opinion polls show that all three executive branch leaders have lost ground with voters, although Herring has appeared to sustain the least damage.

Still, the events have drained their ability to help their party as all 140 General Assembly seats are on the November ballot and Republicans hold razor-thin, two-seat majorities in both the House of Delegates and the Senate.

The scandals have also weakened the chances for either Herring or Fairfax to become the state’s next governor, though neither has ruled out a 2021 bid.

After initially staying out of the public eye, Northam and Herring have taken measured steps to win back black voters and elected officials.

Northam pledged to make racial equity the focus of his remaining 2½ years in office, announcing that he will hire a director of “diversity, equity and inclusion” who will report directly to him and his chief of staff.

He pushed for additional money in the state budget to address several priorities of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, including aid for at-risk public school students and affordable housing support.

The governor also advocated for the creation of an advisory board on African American issues, and he vetoed legislation to set mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes, which have disproportionately impacted minorities.

Herring has focused most of his efforts on concerns of African American communities in Loudoun County, an area of Confederate monuments and Civil War battlefields that he represented for seven years as a state senator.

After Herring revealed that he dressed up as rapper Kurtis Blow at a 1980 party while a student at the University of Virginia, he called Michelle Thomas, the president of the NAACP’s Loudoun chapter.

The two agreed to hold a “healing” series of talks with local black leaders and others, where they would get an opportunity to vent their anger and then figure out ways to address inequities African Americans experience in law enforcement, education and elsewhere, Thomas said.

The first discussion took place in early March and another will occur in June, she said.

“We’re hoping we can chart a path forward, past the blackface,” Thomas said.

At Thursday’s meeting, Herring — who lives in Leesburg — appeared at ease, greeting some with hugs.

Several audience members said they had forgiven the attorney general.

“He volunteered that information, “ said Rochelle Sumner, referring to Herring’s public statement about his time in blackface. “Nobody pulled it out, discovered it during an investigation or anything. But, when we talk about Gov. Northam? I have a different view.”

The discussion focused local concerns that the group had agreed to attack during its March meeting, with Herring vowing to help. Among them are renaming Harry Byrd Highway (named after the former governor who supported racial segregation), changing school textbooks to better reflect the experience of African Americans, and adding judges of color to local courts.

“It’s important to have a criminal justice system that reflects the Commonwealth and its diversity and Virginia, unfortunately, is falling short,” Herring said, noting that just 50 of the state’s 410 judges are African American.

“Here in Loudoun, there are zero,” he said, promising to talk to law schools about steering more students of color into career paths that lead to the bench.

With Herring presiding, the group recruited volunteers who could lobby elected officials and further map plans of action.

They also vowed to help Democrats win in November, arguing that many of their desired changes have been blocked by Republicans, including legislation Herring has pushed that would impose tougher penalties for hate crimes.

“People have to get angry,” said Phillip Thomas, an executive committee member of the state NAACP. “When you get angry, you take action. You’ve got to get involved.”

In a brief interview after the event, Herring balked at the idea that his motivations are connected to renewed plans to run for governor. He said he had not decided whether to resume his bid, which he announced in December, before the blackface admission.

“I’m staying focused on being the best attorney general I can be,” Herring said.

If Herring wants to restore his image with black voters, he needs to be an active voice for racial and ethnic equity, said Jennifer Naqvi, 41.

“He has to be an example,” she said. “He has to show up to all of these meetings. He has to be visible.”

Gregory S. Schneider contributed to this report.