Below are key findings from the report. Read the entire report here.
On February 1, 2019, an online media outlet published a photograph of an individual in blackface and another individual in Ku Klux Klan robes and hood. This photograph appeared on the personal page of Governor Ralph S. Northam’s 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School (“EVMS”) yearbook.
The photo’s origin
- From 1976 to 2013, the EVMS yearbooks were published as an almost entirely student-run program, with little to no oversight exercised by the EVMS administration.
- We reviewed the contents of the yearbooks in detail. We have identified a number of photographs depicting blackface in the yearbooks, including the photograph depicting blackface and an individual in KKK robes in the 1984 yearbook. The yearbooks repeatedly contained other content that could be offensive to women, minorities, certain ethnic groups, and others. These issues or themes recurred over much of the time period in which the yearbooks were published, although with less frequency in the later years of the yearbooks’ publication.
- With respect to the photograph on Governor Northam’s personal page, we could not conclusively determine the identity of either individual depicted in the photograph. The governor himself has made inconsistent public statements in this regard. No individual that we interviewed has told us from personal knowledge that the governor is in the photograph, and no individual with knowledge has come forward to us to report that the governor is in the photograph.
In light of the governor’s statements on February 2, 2019 that he had not seen the photograph before, we sought to determine whether there is information that the photograph was placed on his personal page in error or by any other means not at his direction. Our inquiry in this regard was restricted by the passage of time and the dearth of contemporaneous documentation. While we have identified no information that the photograph was placed on Governor Northam’s personal page in error or by any other means not at his direction, we could not conclusively determine the origin of the photograph.
In our review of the yearbooks spanning from 1976 through 2013, there are at least 10 photographs depicting individuals in blackface. There were three such photographs in the 1984 yearbook (including the photograph depicting one person in blackface and another in KKK robes), one in 1985, two in 1992, two in 1993, one in 1996, and the last instance appears to be in the 2004 yearbook. For those individuals who could be conclusively identified, we determined that those individuals are not current EVMS faculty. In addition to these photographs, there are the images of three students in Confederate uniforms in front of a Confederate flag in the 2013 yearbook.
Yearbooks were discontinued after 2013. Both the administration and students decided to stop the publication, albeit for different reasons. Former students who attended EVMS between 2012 and 2014 told us that the students were no longer interested in the yearbook and that the student body disliked paying for the yearbooks. The decision to stop the yearbooks occurred in 2013, before the publication of the last yearbook. Both a current and a former administrator corroborated this.
Dr. (Richard V.) Homan became president of EVMS in April, 2013. Within a year, in early 2014, he announced the termination of the yearbooks, after Mr. Gemeda (Mekbib Gemeda, the school’s vice president for diversity & inclusion) showed him the photographs of students in Confederate costumes in the 2013 yearbook.
Due to the passage of time, there were no substantive documents that would allow us to definitively determine the assembly process (i.e., whether photographs were submitted in sealed envelopes, which students had access to yearbook materials, etc.). The information provided during our interviews indicated the process, and administration involvement, varied from year-to-year. We received feedback from alumni and former yearbook staff members that the process was at times chaotic and often frustrating.
Apart from Governor Northam’s public claim on February 2 that he had not seen the picture before, no one we interviewed, however, could provide any first-hand knowledge of an actual mistake on any page, including any personal page, within the 1984 yearbook. However, we were also not able to conclusively determine the origin of the photograph.
We attempted on numerous occasions to reach the editor of the 1984 yearbook, but we were unable to do so.
Governor Northam was cooperative with our investigation, including by participating in two in person interviews, and the governor’s cooperation facilitated our investigation. The governor permitted us to interview his own staff as well. With the governor’s assent, we were able to receive a briefing from a lawyer from Alston & Bird, who have been retained by a political action committee associated with the governor. This lawyer summarized for us the results of his own investigation. We note that Alston & Bird, and Jeffrey Breit, the governor’s personal attorney, were also cooperative and helpful with the investigation.
We interviewed Governor Northam on March 27, 2019 and on May 8, 2019.
Interviews with Northam
Governor Northam maintained throughout the interviews that he was not in the photograph in question, and that the first time he saw the photograph was on Friday, February 1, 2019. He learned of the photograph that afternoon, when his chief of staff, Clark Mercer, alerted him. Governor Northam described the situation as shocking and chaotic. As he did not remember the photograph, there were discussions as to whether the news stories were accurate, or the photograph was photoshopped. Based on conversations with his staff, Governor Northam told us there were two initiatives: (1) to issue a statement out as quickly as possible, and (2) to call members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.
Governor Northam told us that he did not write the statements he released on Friday. He said that he felt he should take accountability, and that the situation was urgent. However, he told us that although he did not believe he was in the photograph, “this was 35 years ago,” and “the last thing I wanted to do is say ‘this isn’t me’ and then have someone come forward and say ‘I was there and remember and it is you.’ ”
Governor Northam explained to us that his staff drafted the statements issued Friday, February 1. Governor Northam, however, read and approved the publication of these statements before they were issued. When asked whether he was surprised when he received the statement admitting he was in the photograph, Northam responded, “I wouldn’t say I was surprised. I said ‘what do you need to me to do and I’ll do it.’ That’s the mode I was in. There was an urgency to get the statement out. If I had it to do over again I’d do it differently. I always rely on my communications people. You see these statements… I don’t know why the statement went in the direction it did.”
Northam’s Feb. 1 conversations
In reviewing the events of Friday, February 1, 2019, Governor Northam told us about a series of conversations about the photograph. Governor Northam mentioned a conversation with Delegate Luke Torian (D-Prince William), of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, in which Delegate Torian asked Governor Northam “which one are you?” (referring to the individuals in the photograph). Governor Northam told us that he responded, “Luke, I can’t answer that, I have no memory of this.”
Governor Northam told us that he also began speaking to friends and former classmates. He stated that these conversations got him thinking, and furthered his certainty that he was not in the photograph. During the interview, Governor Northam identified the people he spoke to following the release of the photograph. These individuals included a former VMI roommate, three classmates from EVMS who believed it was not Governor Northam in the photograph, and his girlfriend at the time.
The former VMI roommate, who is now a practicing dentist, told him it was not Governor Northam for several reasons. First, he told Governor Northam his teeth had never looked as good as the individual in blackface, and he did not think Governor Northam wore bowties or plaid pants. The former VMI roommate also noted that the person in blackface held beer in his right hand, whereas Governor Northam usually uses his left hand. One classmate told Governor Northam it was not him in the photograph, and that the classmate was aware of several instances in the 1984 yearbook where pictures were misplaced. Other classmates told him the yearbook process was chaotic. Finally, Governor Northam’s girlfriend at the time told him she had never seen the photograph.
Governor Northam also believes he is not in the photograph based on the size of the individuals in the photograph. He noted the person in blackface had much larger legs than he did in medical school, and the person in the KKK robes is much shorter than he is. Governor Northam commented that he would remember standing next to someone dressed in KKK robes. Further, Governor Northam stated that he “remembered like it was yesterday” dressing up as Michael Jackson (for a 1984 dance contest in San Antonio.) Throughout our interview, Governor Northam stated he was “positive” it was not him in the photograph.
When asked who is in the photograph, Governor Northam told us that he did not know, and he did not want to speculate on who it might be. He was concerned that anyone in the photograph may be a physician with an ongoing medical practice, and Governor Northam stated that he did not want to put anyone through what he and his family have been through. Governor Northam was surprised the photograph had never surfaced before, as in six campaigns for political office it had not been released.
Governor Northam did not recall much about the yearbook process. Governor Northam confirmed that he did submit the other photographs that appear on his personal page in the 1984 yearbook and that he submitted the quotation that appears on that page. Governor Northam does not believe the photograph was a prank.
Our impression from the staffers to whom we spoke generally echoed the governor’s account that the environment on February 1 was chaotic and there was a great deal of pressure, with one staffer describing it as a “crisis situation,” and another stating there was an overwhelming sentiment that a statement had to be made.
Each person we interviewed reported that Governor Northam in conversations with the witnesses denied that he was in the photograph on February 1. One person stated at all points on Friday, Governor Northam stated “this is not me in this picture, I don’t believe this is me in this picture.” Another individual told us that on Friday afternoon he called Governor Northam and the governor said “I’ve never seen the picture and I’ve never seen the yearbook,” as well as it’s “just not me.” One senior staffer we interviewed reported asking Governor Northam point blank if he was in the photograph, and Governor Northam responded “I don’t think so.” This staffer followed up by asking, “Are you sure?” and Governor Northam responded “I don’t think that’s me.” After this exchange, this staffer left to get a laptop, believing that the staff would prepare a statement for the governor that denied he was in the photograph.
Clark Mercer, Governor Northam’s chief of staff, explained that Governor Northam’s level of certainty increased from Friday to Saturday, but his initial reaction was always a denial that he was in the photograph. Most of the staffers we interviewed commented that as a physician, Governor Northam seemed never to speak in absolutes. However, they all reported Governor Northam said from the outset that he did not remember the picture, his wife did not think it was him in the picture, and he had never seen the picture.
We were told there was immense pressure for Governor Northam to issue a statement. Mr. Mercer described in some detail the genesis and selection of statements issued on Friday, February 1. He described three options of potential statements that were discussed among staff and a crisis communications firm: a full denial, a full acceptance, and something in between. The staff and crisis communications firm rejected the in between option as a viable possibility. The options for a full denial and a full acceptance were then discussed with Governor Northam according to Mr. Mercer.
Mr. Mercer recommended to the governor that the governor select the statement accepting responsibility, and that is the statement the governor directed his staff to prepare. Mr. Mercer shed light on the governor’s reasoning in selecting the acceptance statement: “I think the two paths forward were predicated on—[Governor Northam] interpreted that if he said it’s not me and someone comes out and says it is me…the one thing I [the Governor] have is my credibility, my honor, and that would devastate me.”
In other words, according to Mr. Mercer, the governor did not think it was him in the photograph but the governor did not want to say something publicly that someone might challenge or disprove and thus the governor selected a statement saying he was in the photograph. Following the decision by the governor, Mr. Mercer described a group effort, in which there was a “laptop in a conference room with lots of folks surrounding it, tweaking this word, that word. It was not the most effective way to write [the statement] but that’s how it was.” Once the staff wrote the statement, Mr. Mercer said it was shown to Governor Northam, and the governor approved it.
During our interview of Mrs. Northam, she stated that she was not aware that the statement on Friday, February 1 would be an acceptance that Governor Northam was in the photograph. She said if she had been made aware of this, she would have “physically stood there and stopped it.”
With respect to whether the photograph was placed in error, we did hear from the 1984 yearbook staff that the yearbook compilation process was chaotic. As a result, some members of the yearbook staff believed it was possible that a photograph could have been misplaced. However, no one we spoke with identified an actual mistake in the 1984 yearbook — or any other yearbook — in which a photograph appeared on a student’s personal page that the student did not submit.
We also interviewed an alumnus who attended EVMS in the same time frame as Governor Northam. This individual recalled talking to Governor Northam outside of the EVMS library in the weeks before the class of 1984 graduated. This alumni told us he and Governor Northam flipped through the 1984 yearbook together and that included looking together at Governor Northam’s personal page. This individual did not recall the governor having any reaction to the photographs on his personal page that would suggest the governor thought there was an error on his page. He did remember discussing the photograph featuring the car on Governor Northam’s page. This former student told us that he did not believe Governor Northam was in the photograph.
Prior knowledge at EVMS
We were told in the course of our investigation that persons at EVMS had knowledge of the photograph being on Governor Northam’s yearbook page prior to it being widely reported on February 1, 2019. We learned that the former alumni affairs director at EVMS had noticed the photograph while preparing for an EVMS reunion event. EVMS typically placed the yearbooks for the reunion years on a table during the reunion events, and the former alumni affairs director had observed the photograph while looking through the 1984 EVMS yearbook. The photograph shocked the former alumni affairs director, who then showed it to some other EVMS personnel. The EVMS personnel decided to remove the 1984 yearbook from the table at the reunion event so as not to upset anyone who might see the photograph. The EVMS personnel who became aware of the photograph expressed surprise and disappointment in the photograph.
Members of EVMS staff brought the photograph to the attention of the president of EVMS on two separate occasions. Most recently, it was brought to the attention of President Homan, and prior to that it was brought to the attention of then-President (Harry T.) Lester. The timing of when it was raised to the attention of each president corresponded with periods when Governor Northam was running for different public offices.
In essence, the staff members were advising the president at the time of the photograph and asking if EVMS had an obligation to or should do something about it, such as notifying Governor Northam about it. In each case, the president of EVMS decided that the school should not take steps to publicly announce the photograph or to call Governor Northam’s attention to it. We understand President Homan’s reasoning was EVMS should not become involved, or be seen to become involved, in an election as it is a public body and a public institution, and that EVMS did not want there to be any suggestion that it had tried to influence Governor Northam in any respect by calling the photograph to his attention.