Virginia first lady Pam Northam has stepped into a tense discussion on race with good intentions but bad timing, according to three Democratic legislators.
Her hands-on lesson for a group of Senate pages about slave life in the Executive Mansion’s historic kitchen has turned instead into another difficult chapter in the unfolding political saga about Gov. Ralph Northam’s past behavior on race.
One of the pages — who serve legislators during the General Assembly session — said Pam Northam acted insensitively by asking African-American pages to handle a cotton boll and imagine the difficulty of enslaved people who harvested it. Her mother, a state employee, said the mansion visit left her daughter “upset and deeply offended.”
The first lady “had good intentions, but there were some unintended consequences, in light of what we’ve been through with the governor in the last month,” said Del. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, a member of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. “Perhaps that was not a good decision to move forward with that particular historical lesson.”
The incident at the Executive Mansion occurred weeks after the Feb. 1 revelation that Northam’s page in a 1984 medical school yearbook included a racist photo of a person in blackface standing next to someone dressed in Ku Klux Klan garb.
The governor initially apologized for appearing in the photo. The next day he said he was not in the photo, but acknowledged blackening his face to impersonate Michael Jackson in a dance contest in Texas 35 years ago.
The incident at the mansion may represent a missed signal, said Torian, pastor at First Mount Zion Baptist Church in Dumfries. “In light of what has happened with the governor, I hope that her staff had guided her through a whole different teaching focus because of the level of sensitivity that is around the governor and this situation.”
Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, attended an opening reception Thursday night for an exhibit at Main Street Station hosted by the Richmond Slave Trail Commission, an event the governor also attended. McQuinn said the first lady’s tour appeared to be an effort at reconciling the state’s 400-year history with slavery, but also said the timing missed the mark.
“Because people are so tense, maybe we need to just turn it down a little bit, turn the volume down on this. After all, it’s 400 years — you’ve got some time to get things right,” McQuinn said. “There is a level of ... people being sensitive.”
The Northam administration and Senate Clerk Susan Clarke Schaar have said the criticism has unfairly portrayed the first lady’s efforts to broaden the historical presentation at the mansion to reflect the lives of slaves there.
Schaar and administration spokeswoman Ofirah Yheskel also said the first lady did not single out any page in passing out a cotton boll and tobacco leaf for members of the group to handle as a way to teach the history of the kitchen, where slaves lived and worked before the Civil War and emancipation.
“No one was singled out,” said Schaar, who said she had interviewed all of the supervisors involved in the tours and had spoken to a number of the parents. Schaar said neither she nor any of her supervisors received a complaint.
The clerk also defended Pam Northam’s efforts to broaden the educational experience for people who visit the mansion.
“I have seen the first lady in many educational situations,” Schaar said. “She is very much a hands-on teacher. … She has worked very hard to tell the story of the people who worked in the kitchen.”
In a statement on Wednesday, Pam Northam said, “I regret if I have upset anyone,” but defended her efforts to include a depiction of slave life in historical interpretation of the mansion.
“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,” she said in the statement.
The statement did not satisfy Leah Dozier Walker, whose daughter wrote the first lady directly on Monday about her experience at the mansion.
Walker declined a request for comment through her spokesperson, Kali Caldwell. But, in a written statement, Walker said her daughter had “an unfathomable experience on the First Lady’s mansion tour” and criticized the administration’s response to her complaint.
“I am proud of my daughter’s courage, strength, and persistence,” she said in the statement. “Unfortunately, I also remain extremely disappointed in official responses that are as tone deaf and insensitive as the initial bad act.”
Some other legislators, whose children served as pages during the recent legislative session and also took the tour, defended the first lady and her intentions in presenting the tour.
They also say the first lady did not single out any page in passing out a cotton boll and tobacco leaf for members of the group to handle.
“It is a presentation to a large group of kids, just like you’d get at Mount Vernon, Monticello and Montpelier,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, referring to the Virginia plantation homes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
Surovell’s daughter participated in a similar tour with a different group of pages about two weeks after the governor canceled the initial page visit to the mansion because of the furor that had erupted over the yearbook photo.
“From my point of view, people are a little too on edge right now because of what’s gone down the last 30 days,” Surovell said.
Last month Pam Northam hosted a luncheon at the mansion for the spouses of legislators. The speaker, Gayle Jessup White, is the community engagement officer at Monticello, Jefferson’s plantation home in Albemarle County.
White spoke about the 25-year effort at Monticello to give voice to people enslaved there, including two families from which she is descended, the Hemingses and Hubbards. She also is a descendant of Jefferson, who fathered children with Sally Hemings, a slave in the household.
Laura Stanley, the wife of Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, attended the luncheon and toured the kitchen afterward, with the same hands-on lesson. Their 13-year-old daughter participated in the same tour as Walker’s daughter.
“From what I have heard from my wife and daughter, it was not what it seems,” Senator Stanley said Wednesday.
However, the timing of the incident at the mansion might have made the path of racial reconciliation steeper.
“I don’t know how the state is ever going to get beyond its history if people feel like they aren’t allowed to talk about it,” Surovell said.