How Northam's Eastern Shore Contributed to Scandal and Might Provide a Path Forward

Feb 27, 2019

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam pauses during a news conference in the Governor's Mansion in Richmond, Va., on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019.
Credit (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

We've heard from many voices about the racist photos on Governor Ralph Northam's medical school yearbook page and his use of blackface.

Civil Rights advocates on the Eastern Shore, where Northam grew up, say the peninsula’s history and community shed light on what happened and how Northam might move forward.

Four years before the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was signed into law, the 23-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel opened, connecting Virginia's Eastern Shore to the rest of the state.

The isolated communities of Northampton and Accomack Counties were slow to catch up with the rest of the state not only in its schools but in local government and even today in its courts. The Shore has an imbedded Colonial history and about one-third of the population in each county is black.

Ava Gabrielle-Wise in her office in Exmore, Virginia on the Eastern Shore.
Credit Pamela D'Angelo

Ava Gabrielle-Wise is a veteran activist specializing in community and economic development on the Eastern Shore. In the 1990s she and her mother fought to get one neighborhood indoor plumbing.  "What we often experienced here was not the harsh textbook, Bull Connor kinds of experiences that other areas that were more of hotbed of Civil Rights experienced," Gabrielle-Wise notes. "What we more experienced was subtle oppression where we understood we were locked out and there was no way in. And that the decisions were made on our behalf and we had no access to the places where those decisions were made. So, there was no voice for our community."

...there was no voice for our community.

When Gerald Boyd was a kid, each season he migrated with his family from Alabama to the Eastern Shore to pick tomatoes, beans and potatoes. As an adult in Alabama, he joined the Civil Rights Movement

Gerald Boyd at Peacewerks Center for Well-Being in Exmore.
Credit Pamela D'Angelo

working to desegregate public facilities like parks and pools as well as restaurants. He moved back to the Eastern Shore five years ago with his wife to work with the indigent population and to provide mental and behavioral health services.

He has been to several events where he met the governor and offers this advice. "I would invite him to continue to build relationships with me, so that I can hear him well and that he can hear me well. And in that atmosphere, both of us grow in our healing," Boyd said. "His healing from being set up, conditioned to perpetuate racism and my healing from being targeted by racism."

Reverend Lisa Johnson is a pastor in Accomack County and commissioner of social justice with the Eastern Shore Virginia & Maryland Baptist Association. Twelve of its 26 pastors signed a resolution in support of the governor earlier this month.

We met over coffee at one of the Royal Farms convenient stores that dot the Shore.   Rev. Johnson read a line from the resolution: The undersigned pastors support from Jesus's teaching forgiveness and acceptance of the governor as our brother.

Reverend Lisa Johnson was one of 12 pastors to sign a resolution supporting Northam.
Credit Pamela D'Angelo

"We are not unclear in terms of the blatant racist type of depiction that we see in the photo," Johnson explained. "We do not support that type of behavior, not at all. We separate the behavior from the person in our resolution."

Johnson says the community she knows does not want to judge the governor by a single event. And she offers him this advice:  "Focus on what you were elected to do, deal with what you have to deal with but do the job and do it well. I would impress upon them the need for empathetic listening," she added. "I think it's important for individuals to be heard."

For Ava Gabrielle-Wise, the governor's biggest struggle is that he is guided by his Eastern Shore upbringing. But she believes he is trying to change. "The distinction between a genuinely decent person who is trying to evolve from all those influences and some that I meet on a daily basis who have no interest in whatsoever evolving from that place. I happen to think he is trying to evolve from the influences that once guided his thought process," she explained. "The advice I would have for him today is to listen, to really spend some time communicating. Not trying to influence people and make them believe what he wants them to believe about him. But really listen to people and check in with his own values, beliefs and thought processes, to see how they line up with what he's hearing."

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.