"I regret that I upset anyone," Virginia First Lady Pam Northam said in a statement

By Rachel DeSantis
February 28, 2019 02:06 PM
Ralph Northam, Pam Northam
Steve Helber/Pool/Getty

The wife of embattled Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has found herself in a scandal of her own after the mother of a local African-American student claimed the state’s first lady asked her daughter to hold raw cotton on a recent tour of the governor’s mansion.

Leah Dozier Walker, a Virginia state employee, wrote in a letter to lawmakers that her eighth-grade daughter Alexandra took a Senate Page trip to the residence on Feb. 21, but the tour alongside the governor and Mrs. Northam “left her upset and deeply offended.”

Walker — who oversees the Office of Equity and Community Engagement at Virginia’s Education Department, according to The Washington Post — said Mrs. Northam asked Alexandra and two of her fellow pages, the only black pages in the program, to hold cotton as they toured the Historic Kitchen of the Executive Mansion, a cottage that used to house the governor’s slaves.

“Mrs. Northam then asked these three pages if they could imagine what it must have been like to pick cotton all day,” she wrote in the letter, which was published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “I can not (sic) 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.”

An administration spokeswoman disputed Walker’s claim that the black students were singled out, telling the Times-Dispatch that Mrs. Northam encouraged everyone to touch the cotton.

“The First Lady did not single anyone out; she invited all of the pages to touch agricultural products and artifacts displayed in the Historic Kitchen as part of an educational tour,” the spokeswoman told the oulet.

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Mrs. Northam apologized for the incident in a statement to the Dispatch.

“As First Lady, I have worked over the course of the last year to begin telling the full story of the Executive Mansion, which has mainly centered on Virginia’s governors,” she said. “The Historic Kitchen should be a feature of Executive Mansion tours, and I believe it does a disservice to Virginians to omit the stories of the enslaved people who lived and worked there — that’s why I have been engaged in an effort to thoughtfully and honestly share this important story since I arrived in Richmond.”

The first lady continued, “I have provided the same educational tour to Executive Mansion visitors over the last few months and used a variety of artifacts and agricultural crops with the intention of illustrating a painful period of Virginia history. I regret that I have upset anyone.”

“I am still committed to chronicling the important history of the Historic Kitchen, and will continue to engage historians and experts on the best way to do so in the future,” Mrs. Northam concluded.

RELATED: Virginia Gov. Responds to Backlash for Calling Slaves ‘Indentured Servants’: ‘I’m Still Learning’

Gov. Ralph Northam
Alex Edelman/Getty

Another parent of a student present backed the spokesperson’s claim that Northam did not single out African-American students, according to the Post.

The incident comes weeks after Gov. Northam’s page in Eastern Virginia Medical School’s 1984 yearbook resurfaced, showing a man in blackface and another man in a KKK robe.

RELATED: Virginia Gov. Says He Knew Blackface Was Wrong But Amid Scandal, ‘Reality Has Really Set In’

Gov. Northam, 59, initially apologized for the photo, saying, “I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now.”

However, he then reversed course amid calls for his resignation, claiming he was not either of the men in the photo.

“When I was confronted with the images yesterday, I was appalled that they appeared on my page,” Northam said during a press conference on Feb. 2, “but I believe then and now, that I am not either of the people in that photo.”

RELATED: Virginia Gov. Northam Claims He’s ‘Not the Person’ in Racist Photo and Won’t Resign

Despite mounting pressures to step down, Northam has said he will remain the governor of Virginia and dedicate himself to regaining citizens’ trust.

“And there is a reason — I believe — that this happened,” he told Gayle King on CBS This Morning earlier this month. “That we are in a position to learn. I will focus on race and equity. That’s something that, for the next three years, is gonna be my commitment to Virginia. And I really think we can — make impactful changes.”

“They have asked that we not judge them by the horrific images associated with their past and trust that they do not still today find humor in the torture and suffering African Americans have endured in this country,” wrote Walker in her letter about the tour incident involving her daughter. “But the actions of Mrs. Northam, just last week, do not lead me to believe that this Governor’s office has taken seriously the harm and hurt they have caused African Americans in Virginia or that they are deserving of our forgiveness.”

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