Probe inconclusive on Northam's racist yearbook photo

Published: May. 21, 2019 at 12:01 PM EDT
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UPDATE (May 22):

An investigation ordered up by a Virginia medical school failed to determine whether Gov. Ralph Northam is in a 1984 yearbook photo of a man in blackface next to someone in a Ku Klux Klan hood.

Investigators with a law firm hired by Eastern Virginia Medical School said Wednesday they couldn't "conclusively determine" the identities of either person in the 35-year-old photo.

They also said they couldn't discern how the picture was placed on Northam's yearbook page, but found no evidence it was placed there by mistake or as a prank.


found no one "with first-hand knowledge of an actual mistake on any page, including any personal page, within the 1984 yearbook."

A man now living in the Shenandoah Valley who served as a page designer for the EVMS yearbook in 1984

that the yearbook staff only published pictures that were given to them and he saw the chance of a mix-up being very unlikely.

The report also identified 10 photographs depicting individuals in blackface based on the law firm's review of all EVMS yearbooks.

Richard V. Homan, MD, President and Provost of EVMS and Dean of the School of Medicine, underscored the importance of the investigation. "To maintain the public's trust and ensure an independent and objective assessment of the past," he said, "we knew we needed outside assistance."

Within 48 hours of the offensive photo appearing online on Feb. 1, EVMS hired McGuireWoods to conduct the investigation. The law firm's charge was to examine the past culture and yearbook production processes. The results of the independent and objective four-month probe — conducted by the law firm McGuireWoods at the request of EVMS — were announced at a news conference held May 22, 2019, at EVMS.

"We thank EVMS for its cooperation and responsiveness during the investigation," said Richard Cullen, who led the investigation. "EVMS ensured McGuireWoods had unfettered access to EVMS documents and members of the EVMS community. At no time was our inquiry restricted by EVMS, and the findings and conclusions contained in the report are our own."

Dr. Homan acknowledged that publication of the photos was a "failure of administrative oversight on the part of EVMS."

"Their publication was hurtful, particularly to the African-American community and to our campus community," Dr. Homan said. "It should never have happened."

News of the photo on the governor's page triggered a review of yearbooks at other schools across the country that turned up hundreds of offensive photos. The scope of the problem is indicative of the unconscious and conscious bias and racism that continue to exist, Dr. Homan said.

"Unless we face this fact head on, this bias and racism will not abate," he said. "Uncomfortable silence only perpetuates these problems. We must engage in direct conversations, even if they are uncomfortable, even if they are difficult. Notwithstanding, talking is not enough."

Virginia politics was turned upside down in a matter of hours in early February after a conservative website posted a picture of Northam's medical school yearbook page. The Democratic governor issued two apologies within hours, initially indicating that he was one of the people in the picture. By midnight it appeared his entire political base was gone, with the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, other key Democratic groups and top allies calling on him to resign.

Northam reversed course at a news conference the next day, saying he was convinced it was not him in the picture, while revealing that he did in fact wear blackface once decades ago, to look like Michael Jackson for a dance contest. Defying calls to resign, he said he wanted to focus his remaining three years in office on addressing longstanding racial inequities.

While he was all but invisible in February and much of March, the governor is making routine public appearances again.

And he's won praise from black lawmakers and others for several recent policy moves. Those include ending the suspension of driver's licenses for motorists with unpaid court fines and costs, and a review into how public schools teach the nation's racial history.

The heat for Northam to resign significantly lessened after scandal enveloped his potential successors. Two women publicly accused Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax of sexual assault, which he denies. And Attorney General Mark Herring announced he'd also worn blackface in college, just days after he too called on Northam to resign. Both Fairfax and Herring also resisted calls to resign. And other politicians around the South soon had their own explaining to do over yearbook images taken long ago.

But the incident will forever mark Northam's time in office, and opponents still use it against him. House Majority Leader Del. Todd Gilbert recently said Northam had chosen to "repair his own racist legacy," rather than protect victims of domestic abuse after the governor vetoed a bill requiring a mandatory jail term for repeat domestic abusers.

You can read the full results of the investigation


Governor Northam released the following statement in response to the probe's results:

I have cooperated with Richard Cullen and his team over the course of their investigation, both by making myself available for interviews and by turning over the findings of my private inquiry into the matter. I am not in the racist and offensive photo that appears under my name in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook. “That being said, I know and understand the events of early February and my response to them have caused hurt for many Virginians and for that, I am sorry. I felt it was important to take accountability for the photo’s presence on my page, but rather than providing clarity, I instead deepened pain and confusion. “In visits with local leaders across the Commonwealth, I have engaged in frank and necessary dialogue on how I can best utilize the power of the governor’s office to enact meaningful progress on issues of equity and better focus our administration’s efforts for the remainder of my term. That conversation will continue, with ensuing action, and I am committed to working to build a better and more equitable Virginia for all who call it home.”


May 21:

Eastern Virginia Medical School will hold a press conference Wednesday following an investigation into racist pictures in its yearbook, including one of blackface on Governor Ralph Northam's page.

The school launched an investigation after a photo on Northam’s page in the 1984 yearbook showed one person in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe.

Northam initially seemed to confirm he was in the picture, but later denied that he was in the photo, though he admitted wearing blackface at another point as part of a Michael Jackson costume for a dance competition.

The photo and his admission led to widespread calls for Northam’s resignation and revelations from other Virginia politicians’ pasts, including Attorney General Mark Herring's admission to wearing blackface as well.

Yearbook staff members have disagreed over whether the photo could have been mistakenly placed on Northam's page.

A man now living in the Shenandoah Valley who served as a page designer for the EVMS yearbook in 1984

that the yearbook staff only published pictures that were given to them and he saw the chance of a mix-up being very unlikely.

Thousands of letters and emails were sent to alumni asking for information on the photo and its origin, but it's still not clear exactly who is pictured in the photo on Northam's page.

President, Provost and Dean of EVMS School of Medicine Richard V. Homan and representatives from McGuireWoods, which conducted the investigation, will speak at the news conference on Wednesday following McGuireWoods reaching a conclusion.

The news conference will begin at 10:30 a.m.


John March
Communications Director
Republican Party of Virginia
RPV Statement on Findings of EVMS Yearbook Investigation
Richmond, VA - Republican Party of Virginia Chairman Jack Wilson issued the following statement in response to the findings of the investigation into Ralph Northam's page in the Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook:
"The Republican Party of Virginia's call for Ralph Northam's resignation is unwavering. Ralph Northam admitted to wearing blackface and embarrassed our Commonwealth on an international scale. Only one person has confessed to being in the racist photograph, and that person is Ralph Northam.
"While the Governor has been professing ignorance as to the origin of the photograph or its inclusion in his yearbook entry, his subsequent actions - including his reversal on a 60-day mandatory minimum sentence for abusers convicted of domestic violence - suggest a guilty conscience.
"Ralph Northam does not represent Virginia. Virginia will not tolerate racism. Virginia will not tolerate another day of Ralph Northam's so-called leadership. For the good of the Commonwealth, Ralph Northam needs to resign today."