Gov. Ralph Northam will not attend a racial reconciliation event planned at Virginia Union University on Thursday, acceding to a request from student leaders at the historically black school.
The visit was to be Northam’s first public event in a planned racial reconciliation tour after the Feb. 1 revelation that a racist photograph appeared on his page in his 1984 medical school yearbook.
Northam’s visit was supposed to coincide with VUU’s annual tribute to alumni who protested segregation in Richmond nearly 60 years ago. The president of the school’s student government association, Jamon Phenix, wrote in a letter Monday that Northam’s visit would overshadow the commemoration.
Northam tweeted in response late Wednesday afternoon that he would “respect the wishes of the student body,” and accepted an invitation by Phenix to come to campus this spring for “dialogue and honest conversation on issues of race, reconciliation and equity.”
Northam instead plans to host the civil rights activists at the Executive Mansion on Friday.
The so-called Richmond 34 were arrested in 1960 during a sit-in at the lunch counter of the Thalhimers department store in downtown Richmond, convicted of trespassing and fined $20 each.
The group also will be celebrated at the Capitol on Friday with a joint resolution marking the activism of the Richmond 34. Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, is the resolution’s sponsor.
Elizabeth Johnson Rice, who is one of the Richmond 34, said Wednesday that the group welcomed Northam to the VUU event and had not been reached by student representatives before they asked Northam to reschedule. Rice wrote a letter to Northam early Wednesday objecting to the visit being canceled.
She added that the Richmond 34 are split on whether Northam should stay in office. But, she added, those she has contacted are open to public dialogue on the issue.
“In my letter, I talked about having a forum in the near future so the governor and the students and the community could talk about this issue,” Rice said. “Hopefully that will happen also.”
Northam has made few public appearances since the Feb. 1 discovery of the racist yearbook photo, which shows a man in blackface and another man in a Ku Klux Klan robe. He apologized that day, but the following day he said he believes he was not in the photo. However, on Feb. 2 he disclosed that he wore blackface as part of a Michael Jackson costume for a dance contest in San Antonio in 1984.
The governor has so far rejected widespread calls to resign, and has instead embarked on a tour of private visits with black leaders in the state.
One of those visits took place Wednesday at the farm of John W. Boyd Jr., a civil rights activist and founder of the National Black Farmers Association. Boyd runs multiple farms in Mecklenburg County, where his family has owned land going back to just after the Civil War.
Boyd gave Northam a tour of one of those properties, where he hopes to grow hemp in the spring. In an interview, Boyd said the pair talked about ways Northam could help black farmers in Virginia, and how Northam could move past the blackface scandal.
“I do believe the governor is trying, and that’s what has to happen,” Boyd said. “You have to get out there, and meet everybody, even if people aren’t in support of him right now.”
Boyd said he doesn’t want Virginia to be “remembered as the state of blackface.” He said that with Northam at the helm, the state could instead become a model for racial reconciliation.
Northam and Boyd were joined on the tour by Agriculture Secretary Bettina Ring and black farmers from the area.
They asked Northam to commit to appointing more African-Americans to Virginia’s agricultural commodity boards. The boards help promote Virginia’s commodities through a number of state-funded programs. They also asked Northam to use his visibility to help African-American farmers obtain credit extensions from some of the state’s largest banks.
“The top ten banks haven’t been particularly friendly in extending credit to African-American farmers,” Boyd said. “We spoke in depth about how he could use his megaphone to help us.”
Northam spokeswoman Ofirah Yheskel said: “The governor appreciated the visit with Virginia black farmers and the opportunity to discuss the challenges they face.”