RICHMOND, Virginia — Gov. Ralph Northam had planned to kick off his statewide apology tour Wednesday, but he got uninvited to the first event.
The historically black Virginia Union University was supposed to be the first place for Northam to atone for the photo in his 1984 yearbook of a person in Klan garb and another in blackface, which sparked a backlash and calls for his resignation when it surfaced online about 3 weeks ago. Then he admitted he'd appeared in blackface for a dance contest around the same time, fueling the fire —though he's apparently staying put. (The governor admitted the dance-contest blackface, but he says he's not in the photo on the yearbook page.)
While some attendees of the VUU event, whose main purpose was to honor the Richmond 34 civil rights activists, were happy to let their ceremony serve as a place for the governor to begin learning and apologizing for his racist act, the student body felt blindsided.
Student Government Association President Jamon Phenix penned a letter addressed to Gov. Northam demanding he back out of the event, explaining that the students “feel as though your presence takes away from the historical significance of our commemoration.” Northam agreed not to attend.
Phenix did invite the governor to return to campus later this year for a roundtable discussion and interview. But when asked why he would delay the chance to reconcile, Phenix told VICE News that the governor’s mere presence at the event, without the opportunity for students to ask questions or have a discussion, didn’t add value. “There was no real reconciliation. If he was to attend, he would not be on the platform and he would not have said anything. Where’s the reconciliation inside of just a presence?”
Elizabeth Johnson Rice, one of the Richmond 34, disagreed. In 1960, she and her peers entered Thalhimers department store, sat down at a whites-only counter, and were arrested and charged with trespassing. As alarmed as she was that Northam had dressed in blackface, she believes firmly in second chances. “Northam may have trespassed against the black community,” she conceded. “But the word is forgiveness. And that's, that's what my heart said he deserves.”
VICE News met with current and former VUU students in Richmond to get more reaction. Though Governor Northam wasn't in the room, the question of whether he's worthy of reconciliation certainly was.
This segment originally aired February 21, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.