ONANCOCK — Ralph Northam was named most dignified student at Onancock High School in his senior year.
In that 1977 yearbook, he’s pictured as a leader in the Beta Club and other groups, almost always alongside black classmates who just over a decade earlier wouldn’t have been allowed to enroll there.
He’s pictured on one knee, holding a French horn in the band. And he’s on the basketball team, one of its two white players.
Those who knew the governor from his upbringing along this isolated 70-mile stretch of land separated from the rest of the state by the Chesapeake Bay were stunned when his medical school yearbook page surfaced two weeks ago showing three photos of Northam alongside one picture of a person in blackface posing with someone in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe.
“It certainly wasn’t a culture of the [high] school,” said Dennis Custis, who taught Northam’s government class and contacted him soon after the racist photo emerged. “I called him to tell him that all his friends haven’t forgotten him and I know what kind of person he was.”
As the governor clings to his position despite widespread calls for his resignation, people who grew up around Northam are trying to reconcile their memories here with the photo that sparked national outrage.
When Northam apologized for the yearbook photo — which he said he’s not in shortly after saying he was — and then admitted wearing blackface as part of a Michael Jackson costume in Texas, he said his childhood created a blind spot on the racial insensitivity of his actions.
“In the place and time when I grew up, many actions we rightfully recognize as abhorrent today were commonplace,” Northam said in a nationally televised press conference.
A month earlier, in a video on the Salisbury Daily Times website, he said that “growing up, the way we were raised, my brother and I, we didn’t see color.”
Northam, who declined through a spokeswoman an interview request for this story, grew up on a farm on the waterfront in Accomack County just outside Onancock, a speck of a town with a handful of stores in a rural county that produces the most corn and soybeans in Virginia. It was here, he learned from his father in 2017, that his family had once owned slaves.
He entered public schools as they were being racially integrated.
Instead of fleeing to private schools like so many other white families, Northam’s parents, a judge and a nurse, kept him and his brother in public schools.
The first black student graduated from Onancock High in 1968, 14 years after the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregated schools unconstitutional.
Northam’s senior year, 35 of his classmates were white, 37 were black. Every high school had two assistant principals — one white and one black — who split time between administration and teaching.
In ways large and small, the hundreds of years of prejudice as old as the nation itself endured.
A nearby town hall had segregated bathrooms. A restaurant called The Owl had a big sign directing “colored” customers to a back door well into the 1970s. A pair of white people in town on a recent day used the N-word when talking about the attitudes of the past, when white students refused to sit at lunch tables with black peers and black friends in school typically weren’t allowed to come home with them for sleepovers.
One shopkeeper who went to school with Northam recalled some boys using burnt wine corks before parties to darken their faces, always as what she characterized as more goofy than racist. Several others who grew up at that time said they never saw anyone wear blackface, but there were other signs of racial tension.
“We understood that in the adult world there were differences than there were in the world we lived in,” said Jarvis E. Bailey, a friend of Northam’s who is black and graduated from Onancock two years after him. “But we were allowed to be students. ... The lawyers and judges and doctors in Accomack who had tennis courts, I was allowed on their tennis courts. I went skiing and boating. ... For us growing up on the Shore, we were friends.”
Segregated proms were common across the South during the civil rights era. But while white students at a nearby high school would skip prom for a private whites-only party, Custis said, Onancock’s prom was attended by black and white students alike.
Rossano Smith, an African-American who remembers Northam from elementary school and Little League, dismissed the yearbook photo as at worst a prank. Ralph Northam, he said, is a good man: “I got absolutely nothing bad to say about him. I think he’s a fair guy.”
Here, where the governor grew up, people are quick to note the rest of his life’s work, in the Army, as a pediatric neurologist and as a politician who cares about helping the less fortunate.
“This man we’ve been walking with over the last couple of decades and what he’s given his life to, doesn’t that merit some consideration?” Bailey said.
The Eastern Shore of Virginia was only accessible by ferry until 1964 and didn’t get a McDonald’s until 1978. It’s often left off of maps of Virginia entirely, including recently at that first McDonald’s on U.S. Route 13 in Onley.
But residents and historians say the Shore’s isolation doesn’t mean it’s been locked in the past.
Brooks Miles Barnes, a retired librarian and one of the Eastern Shore’s foremost historians, said that while the Virginia portion of the Eastern Shore was deeply segregated and has its own regrettable episodes, the area was home to less racial violence than its neighbors.
In 1910, Accomack County had the highest per capita income of any rural county in the nation. The economy — based largely around agriculture, seafood, lumber and tourism — was booming. The demand for labor caused the population to swell, and black migration kept up with whites, he said.
“You don’t come to a place even if there’s jobs if you might know you’re going to get killed or something like that,” Barnes said.
Three years earlier, there had been a race riot in Onancock: Shots were fired, and a pair of black-owned businesses were burned.
Records show two lynchings and two legal executions in the area after the Civil War, with one of the executions being a white man, Barnes said. Along the Eastern Shore in Maryland, lynchings were continual, he said, with one in 1935 right in front of the Salisbury courthouse.
The Ku Klux Klan had members here, but Barnes said he’s been unable to find any evidence of racial violence that stemmed from their presence.
The Eastern Shore’s history is in some ways atypical of Virginia’s. In the state that was the epicenter of the Confederacy, it was occupied by Union troops early in the Civil War without a single battle.
“I think if he’s speaking generally about the South, that time in the South, yeah, it was a time of transition. I lived through it,” Barnes said of Northam’s comments about the time and place he was raised. “I was born in 1950 and my parents taught me to respect black people. But they didn’t necessarily teach me that black people were equal.”
The governor’s father, Wescott Northam, who still lives on the Eastern Shore, declined an interview request. People knew him as a man who didn’t tolerate racist behavior or language, the Washington Post reported recently.
Samuel H. Cooper Jr., the clerk of circuit court in Accomack County since 1983, has worked with Northam’s brother, a lawyer, and his father, who was still a judge when Cooper was first elected. He said the Northams are a good, upstanding family, even as he acknowledges that whoever is behind the photo in the governor’s yearbook should’ve known better. Like many of Northam’s supporters on the Shore, he’s willing to take the long view even as he declines to say whether the governor should resign.
“I do believe we change. Our values change. Our perception of things change over the years, sometimes good, sometimes bad,” he said. “It’s just a sad time for the commonwealth. Again, it’s more troubling because he’s a homeboy. He’s from the Shore. And we take a lot of pride in the fact that he is right here from Onancock.”
Some worry that the unwelcome spotlight will mar the Eastern Shore’s reputation.
“This place has made strides since 1984. It was making strides during 1984. I would be really resentful if this place was demonized because of this incident,” Barnes said. “[Racial prejudice] differs from geographic section to section, state to state, county to county, community to community, doorstep to doorstep. It is so fraught. It is so complicated.”
Northam, whose apology tour is set to begin Thursday at Virginia Union University, said an assistant during his campaign for governor explained to him why blackface is so offensive.
The practice dates back to minstrel shows in Northern cities in the 1840s as racist parodies in which whites would mock blacks while portraying characters with names like Jim Crow or Zip Coon. Amateur minstrel shows were still common among civics groups and other organizations well into the civil rights era, said Melvin Ely, a history and humanities professor at the College of William & Mary who has written about the experiences of African-Americans in the South.
And in the past two weeks, a look back at college yearbooks has served as a reminder that blackface didn’t universally stir the same swift public condemnation as it does today.
“For different groups it becomes less acceptable at different times. ... There are places where I would expect to see that, but the yearbook of a medical school in the 1980s was not one of them,” Ely said.
Actors such as Dan Aykroyd and Billy Crystal who darkened their faces for film or television roles in the ’80s continued to land roles. So did Ted Danson, who was widely criticized in 1993 for appearing in blackface and telling racist jokes.
Ely said arguments about the intent behind the decision to wear blackface are nearly irrelevant.
“I think there’s no way you can enact that image without being deprecatory and condescending. If you don’t get that and you say you didn’t mean that, you’re not thinking,” Ely said. “That doesn’t mean everybody who ever did it hated African-Americans, but you cannot do that and not be deprecating them.
“I don’t know that getting yourself up as Michael Jackson is the same as putting on minstrel makeup. I know I wouldn’t do either one and I think either one is problematic.”
Virginia has long struggled with its identity: It’s the birthplace of American democracy and slavery. It seated the nation’s first elected black governor in 1990. The official state song had racist lyrics until 1997.
Virginians are evenly split on whether Northam should resign, with whites more likely than blacks to favor his resignation, according to a poll from the Washington Post.
In Accomack County this month, a conservative stronghold that Northam didn’t win in his bid to become governor, it’s tough to find someone who will say the scandal should end Northam’s career.
Brenda Holden grew up on the Eastern Shore in the ’70s and said she never experienced open or aggressive racism, even though she knew it existed. It still does, she said. But Northam’s yearbook, while it appalled her, doesn’t outweigh his public service, she said.
“I think if you look at how he is and what he’s done, you have a different mindset and a different understanding,” Holden said. “There are two sides to a coin, but you can only see one side at a time.”
Bailey — who went to school with Northam — and his wife had a stillborn child at Walter Reed Medical Center in 1988. Northam was working at the hospital. Bailey said he doesn’t know how Northam knew he and his wife were there, but he found them, spent time with them and offered to help any way he could.
Bailey said Northam can revive his career in politics if people start to see the full picture of his life.
“I believe that this is a defining moment and what we need is someone who can lead us in this discussion. ... Racism is the American dilemma,” Bailey said. “Look at his views. Look at what he gives his life to. I think he’s in a position to rise from the ashes.”
The governor has remained out of public view for most of the past two weeks, often using the tunnel system at the Capitol to avoid the press on his way to and from his residence. He appeared last weekend at the funeral of a state trooper, and gave a nationally televised interview to CBS’ Gayle King, after which he was again widely criticized.
A pair of sexual assault allegations against the lieutenant governor and an admission from the attorney general that he also wore blackface may have eased some of the immediate pressure on Northam.
On Thursday, Northam is scheduled to attend but not speak at a “Faith, Community and Racial Reconciliation rally” at Virginia Union University, the same place where the Rev. Al Sharpton earlier this month renewed calls for Northam’s resignation, noting 2019 marks the 400th anniversary of slaves arriving in Virginia.
Two weeks before his medical school yearbook surfaced, Northam gathered with former Gov. Bob McDonnell and other elected leaders — some of whom have since called for his resignation — to sign a proclamation declaring 2019 a year of “racial reconciliation and civility.”
In his speech, Northam acknowledged that some of the state’s history ought to be celebrated, while other parts shouldn’t be ignored. He said that when people ask him about his hero, he says it’s Barbara Johns, the student who in 1951 walked out of class in Farmville and helped lead to the Supreme Court decision that ended school segregation. He noted that a picture of Johns, as well as one of the civil rights lawyer Oliver Hill, hang in the Executive Mansion where he lives.
“So there are good things to tell about Virginia,” Northam said, “and then there are some things that we need to learn from.”