Seeing the picture on the medical school yearbook page of now-Gov. Ralph Northam (D) was a gut punch. A man in blackface standing next to someone else dressed as a member of the Ku Klux Klan. That same 1984 keepsake from Eastern Virginia Medical School also featured students in other racist and offensive images. Three years earlier, under his otherwise stately photograph in the 1981 yearbook of the Virginia Military Institute, Northam listed one of his nicknames as “Coonman,” a racial slur that evokes the worst caricature of African American men. One wonders if this was a sanitized version of a harsher moniker for someone having black friends.
When the stunning Northam story broke, countless political observers commented that Northam’s 2017 Republican challenger Ed Gillespie should get his money back from his opposition research team. How could they miss something so incendiary, so blatantly racist? How could they resist making something public something that would brand a hypocrite the Democrat roasting Gillespie’s rather Trumpian white nationalist campaign? For that matter, how could Northam and his own team not see this coming?
Perhaps they didn’t see it because they saw nothing wrong with it. They couldn’t because they were steeped in a deeply entrenched culture that demeaned, demoralized and dismissed African Americans. Northam said as much when he admitted to CBS’s Gayle King that the controversy opened his eyes to “the way a white person such as myself is treated in this country” and that he “didn’t realize really the powerful implications of that.” This comment exemplifies the attitude that allowed such a halting photograph like that on Northam’s 1984 medical yearbook page (or the other blackface and offensive photos) to be submitted without apology, printed without complaint.
Each character depicted is a moral affront to decency and our national ideals of freedom and equal justice under law. They are symbols of a system of oppression that far too many white Americans (like Northam, until this month) are content to ignore. Who can blame them given how bloody that system and its history are? But that ignorance has created a culture of complicity that continues to hobble our nation today.
The man in blackface
As The Post reported in a story on the history of blackface, the racist practice was part of minstrel shows that started in the 1800s and used white actors with shoe-polish-blackened faces to exaggerate every aspect of black life. Blues musician Daryl Davis told The Post that the shows were meant “to depict false stereotypes of black people: the big lips, the lack of education, the poor clothing. ... It wasn’t about trying to look black, but trying to look black in a way that portrays blacks negatively.”
Such portrayals did something else. They cemented a universal inferior status for African Americans.
“Minstrelsy, comedic performances of ‘blackness’ by whites in exaggerated costumes and make-up, cannot be separated fully from the racial derision and stereotyping at its core,” notes a history of blackface on the website of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. “By distorting the features and culture of African Americans — including their looks, language, dance, deportment, and character — white Americans were able to codify whiteness [italics theirs] across class and geopolitical lines as its antithesis.” And as cultural historian Rhae Lynn Barnes writes in an eye-opening essay in The Post, wearing blackface once ranked up there with baseball and apple pie in national lore.
“Blackface is as American as the ruling class,” Barnes explains. “Throughout the 20th century, all-male fraternal orders, schools, federal agencies and the U.S. military collectively institutionalized the practice. Watching blackface performances was a common pastime for U.S. presidents from both parties. ‘Blacking up’ was seen as an expression of cultural heritage and patriotism throughout Jim Crow America ... and up until the civil rights movement.”
Blackface wasn’t the only way African Americans were caricatured. There were the depictions in books, magazines, household products, figurines, children’s toys, postcards, arcade games, restaurants and countless other ways that reinforced the dehumanization of blacks in every aspect of American life. “Caricatures become rationalizations for the denial of opportunities,” explained David Pilgrim, founder and curator of the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University, in a video tour of the Michigan museum. “If you believe the caricature of African American men as ‘coons,’ meaning lazy, ne’er-do-wells, ignorant, people who are cultural parasites, if you perpetuate that caricature and accept that caricature, then that becomes a rationalization for denying African Americans the right to vote, to attend good schools. It becomes a rationalization for supporting Jim Crow.”
“The fact that school yearbooks of the 1980s normalized these discriminatory practices speaks volumes to the prevalence of racism in our society then and now,” Daina Ramey Berry told me. Berry is an associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and author of “The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation.”
The person dressed as a klansman
There is nothing funny about the Ku Klux Klan. With their burning crosses and other threats, KKK members used fear, intimidation and extrajudicial force against African Americans to maintain white supremacy and the Jim Crow laws that reinforced it. As Pilgrim says in the Jim Crow Museum video, “You cannot tell the story of America’s race history or race relations in America’s history without talking about the Klan.”
One of the most gruesome ways the KKK enforced the color line was through lynchings. But more often than not, these extrajudicial killings were gruesome affairs that were carried out in front of large crowds that could number in the thousands. Entire towns and communities would take part. They would take photos with the lifeless body. They would make souvenirs of the victim’s body parts. They would send postcards of the barbarity through the mail. Horrific actions that would embed fear into the DNA of African Americans for generations to come.
Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, told me about the appalling power of such violence on African Americans during an interview in 2017. “It basically communicated to African Americans: You will not be safe here. You are not secure here. Law enforcement can’t protect you. Courts can’t protect you. Congress can’t protect you. You are at risk all the time. And if you do not comply, without wavering, to white supremacy to racial hierarchy then this will be what happened to you,” he said.
“Black people were lynched for things like walking too close to a white woman, for asking for better wages, for preaching equality,” Stevenson told me last year just before the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, also known as the Lynching Memorial, in Montgomery, Ala. “So when we talk about racial terror lynchings, we’re talking about the racialized violence that was directed at African Americans, following emancipation, to reinforce racial hierarchy, to reinforce white supremacy.”
According to “Lynching in America,” a report from EJI first released in 2015, Virginia had 84 documented lynchings of African Americans between 1877 and 1950, the fewest among the Southern states. Neighboring North Carolina and Kentucky had 123 and 168 documented lynchings, respectively. Mississippi had the most with 654.
In the early hours of March 14, 1889, a group of 70 to 100 masked men removed Magruder Fletcher from jail. The black man was accused of “outraging” a white woman (a crime that likely meant rape). “On Thursday morning, the 14th, ... a party of some seventy masked men took him from jail and hung him to the limb of a pine tree about a mile from Onancock,” read a report in the Staunton Spectator on March 27, 1889. “Four shots were fired into his body. On his breast was pinned a paper bearing the words, ‘We will protect our wives and daughters.’”
An earlier story in the Shenandoah Herald detailed how Fletcher’s body was visited by “hundreds of people” who “carried away branches of the tree on which the negro paid the penalty of his terrible crime.” It further noted that Fletcher’s “crime was one of the most outrageous ever committed here, and public opinion is with the lynchers. There was not a shadow of a doubt as to his guilt.” The story ends by reporting that “there will be no further legal proceedings in the case.”
On March 25, 1889, the Alexandria Gazette announced the death of the woman Fletcher was alleged to have attacked and noted that the citizens of a nearby community “were so incensed and infuriated over the crime of the negro that several days after he was lynched numerous colored residents of the Neck were notified to leave, which they hastily did.”
The Post reports that in August 1907, the tiny Eastern Shore Virginia town of Onancock was rocked by a race riot that resulted in a black man being beaten. “Although a large group of white men burned and shot bullets into black-owned shops,” reads the story, “no whites were arrested.”
Onancock is in Accomack County. It is where Northam’s great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather owned slaves, ages 1 year old to 60 years old, between 1850 and 1860. And it is where the future governor Northam would be raised 340 years after the first Africans landed in Virginia, 70 years after the Fletcher lynching and 52 years after the race riot.
“This culture of fear created an environment in which African Americans who witnessed lynchings or lost family or friends to racial violence were afraid to discuss their experiences and risked violent reprisals if they dared to openly share what they had seen,” EJI asserted in the third edition of its report on lynching in America. “Their trauma was intensified by a culture of silence about racial violence that grew out of the same systemic terror that produced racial violence.”
To make matters worse, the composition of lynching spectators compounded the terror. The EJI report explained: “The crowds of hundreds or thousands of white people attending as participants or spectators included elected officials and prominent citizens; white press coverage regularly defended the lynchings as justified; and cursory investigations rarely led to identifications of lynch mob members, much less prosecutions.”
Finally, the EJI report notes, “Generations of white people were raised in communities where myths of racial superiority dominated and went largely unchallenged. Many of those people hold powerful positions today.” In reading those words, I couldn’t help but think of Northam, who now finds himself challenged by his past and is finding difficulty coming to grips with it in the present.
Northam said he didn’t learn about the racial offensiveness of blackface until a discussion about the photo fiasco “with a person of color.” During an interview with CBS’s Gayle King, the governor noted that in 1619, “the first indentured servants from Africa landed on our shores.” King interrupted Northam to say, “also known as slavery.” He told King that one of the things he learned that he didn’t now before the controversy was, “I was born in white privilege. ... It is much different the way a white person such as myself is treated in this country.” Adding, after King asked if he really didn’t know that before, “I knew I was ... but I didn’t realize really the powerful implications of that.” That response and the yearbook controversy demonstrate the depth of the cultural cave from which the governor must emerge.
I still believe Northam should resign, but it looks as though he’s going to “brazen it out.” That’s what conservative commentator Charlie Sykes calls it when politicians get caught up in a scandal that demands their stepping down but they don’t — and survive in office. (See: Trump.) So, since Northam is going to hang on despite his offense, I’m glad he says he is now dedicating himself to racial equity. But he’s going to have to do more than read Ta-Nehisi Coates and “Roots” by Alex Haley or go on a “reconciliation tour” to talk about race and healing. He must do more difficult, less passive things.
I want Northam to contact the National Memorial for Peace and Justice to start the process of securing all of the monuments to the 84 documented lynching victims in Virginia, starting with the one for Magruder Fletcher.
And I want Northam to internalize the history he’s finally learning and become a rhetorical sledgehammer against the conspiracy of silence that has cloaked his life and hobbles our nation. Do those things and Northam will have made a good headway on his newfound mission.
“This is really an opportunity ... to really have a frank dialogue and discussion about race and equity in this country,” Northam told King. We’ve had so many of these opportunities. You couldn’t get more frank than former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu was in his speech when he removed Confederate monuments from the Crescent City in 2017. It’s about time another white Southerner in elective office took the lead.
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