Probe Inconclusive Regarding Racist Photo on Governor Ralph Northam's Yearbook Page

In this Feb. 2, 2019 file photo, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, left, gestures as his wife, Pam, listens during a news conference in the Governor's Mansion at the Capitol in Richmond, Va.
Credit AP Photo / Steve Helber

The mystery of whether Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam was in the racist yearbook photo that nearly destroyed his career remains unsolved.

A months-long investigation ordered up by Eastern Virginia Medical School failed to determine whether Northam is in the picture published in 1984 of a man in blackface standing next to someone in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe.

Investigators with a law firm hired by the school said Wednesday they couldn't conclusively establish the identities of either person in the 35-year-old photo that was on Northam's yearbook page alongside pictures of him.

They also said they couldn't determine how the photo ended up on Northam's page, but found no evidence it was put there by mistake or as a prank.

Dean of Eastern Virginia Medical School of Medicine, Richard Homan, left, speaks to the media as attorney for McGuire Woods law firm, Ben Hatch, center, and McGuire Woods partner, Richard Cullen, right, listen during a news conference on a report announcing the results of an investigation into a blackface photo that appeared on the yearbook page of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam from his Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook.
Credit (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

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The Democratic governor initially acknowledged he was in the picture and apologized without saying which costume he was in, then reversed course the next day, saying he was convinced he was not in the photo. But he acknowledged he wore blackface once decades ago, to look like Michael Jackson for a dance contest.

"No individual that we interviewed has told us from personal knowledge that the governor is in the photograph, and no individual with knowledge has come forward to us to report that the governor is in the photograph," said the report by the law firm McGuireWoods.

In a statement Wednesday, Northam repeated that he is not in the photo and apologized again to the people of Virginia, admitting his handling of the episode "deepened pain and confusion."

The findings are unlikely to have a major effect on state politics or Northam, who managed to survive the furor and has been trying mightily since then to make amends with the black community and its leaders, who have shown a willingness to let it go.

Virginia Legislative Black Caucus Chairman Del. Lamont Bagby said the inconclusive report "doesn't change a thing as it relates to the challenges that we have to do," adding: "We've got 400 years of stuff to clean up."

Credit Eastern Virginia Medical School via AP

Virginia politics was turned upside down in a matter of hours last winter after a conservative website posted the picture. Black lawmaker and other key Democratic groups and top allies immediately called on him to resign.

Investigators said Northam did not believe he was in the photo when he first saw it but did not want to issue an immediate denial in case someone contradicted him.

"The best we can conclude is that he erred on the side of caution initially and immediately regretted not having denied," said attorney Richard Cullen, who led the investigation.

Northam's chief of staff, Clark Mercer, told investigators that the governor was "in a state of shock" when the photo surfaced.

During the uproar, Northam defied calls to resign and said he wanted to focus his remaining three years in office on addressing racial inequities.

The pressure to step down significantly lessened after scandal enveloped his potential successors, both Democrats. Two women publicly accused Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax of sexual assault, which he denied. And just days after calling on Northam to resign, Attorney General Mark Herring announced he, too, had worn blackface in the 1980s when he was in college.

Both Fairfax and Herring also rejected calls to resign. And other politicians around the South soon had their own explaining to do over yearbook images taken long ago.

The three interlocking scandals briefly raised the possibility that Virginia's top three Democrats would lose their jobs and the Republican House speaker would become governor.

While Northam was all but invisible in February and much of March, he is making routine public appearances again. And he has won praise from black lawmakers and others for such moves as ending the suspension of driver's licenses for motorists with unpaid fines, and a review into how schools teach the nation's racial history.

Opponents still use the incident against him. House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert recently accused Northam of choosing to "repair his own racist legacy" rather than protect victims of domestic abuse after the governor vetoed a bill requiring a mandatory jail term for repeat offenders.

Stephen Farnsworth at the University of Mary Washington says the report's inconclusive results are probably the best possible outcome for the medical school and its many powerful and wealthy graduates.

“Nobody wants to be identified as the blackface guy. Nobody wants to be identified as the guy in the Klan robe. And so the alumni of this medical school all benefit from the ambiguity of this report,” he explains.

The report did nothing to harm Governor Ralph Northam’s already tenuous position as embattled chief executive. But Quentin Kidd at Christopher Newport University says it also did nothing to help him.

“This scandal looms over him as a shadow, and that’s not going to change as a result of this investigation. That’s unfortunate. I was hopeful that some real concrete questions could get answered and unfortunately that isn’t happening,” says Kidd.

In a statement after the report was released, Northam says he realizes his initial response caused pain and confusion, and he apologizes.

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