Virginia First Lady Pamela Northam allegedly hands black teens cotton, asks to imagine being slaves

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Pamela Northam
Pamela Northam at a February 2nd press conference held by her husband Ralph Northam. Image: VCU Capitol News Service (CC2.0)

Virginia First Lady Pamela Northam, the wife of embattled Governor Ralph Northam, is accused of singling out black children at an event last week, handing them samples of raw cotton, and asking them to imagine what it would be like to be enslaved.

Another scandal rocks Virginia politics

Following the February 1st revelation that Governor Northam’s medical school yearbook pages contained an image of a white man wearing blackface, the Virginia political establishment has been rocked by a series of scandals.

The First Lady of the Commonwealth, Pamela Northam, has now unexpectedly joined the list of embattled public figures.

According to a complaint dated February 25th, submitted by a state employee named Leah Dozier Walker, Mrs Northam behaved insensitively towards her child and two other African-American children at a recent reception held for State Senate pages, to mark the end of the recent legislative session.

“The Governor and Mrs. Northam have asked the residents of the Commonwealth to forgive them for their racially insensitive past actions,” Walker wrote. “But the actions of Mrs. Northam, just last week, do not lead me to believe that this Governor’s office has taken seriously the harm and hurt they have caused African Americans in Virginia or that they are deserving of our forgiveness.”

During the reception held in the Executive Mansion on February 21st, Mrs Northam conducted twenty of the pages into an adjacent cottage that once served as the historic building’s kitchen. Standing before a huge fireplace, Mrs Northam held up samples of tobacco and cotton and talked about the slaves who had once picked it in nearby fields.

According to Walker, Northam then singled out her child and two others in the group of twenty.

“Mrs. Northam then asked these three pages (the only African American pages in the program) if they could imagine what it must have been like to pick cotton all day,” she wrote.

A page gives her account

Walker’s teenage child has not been identified by name in the media, but a large section of a letter she herself wrote to Pamela Northam has been published by local television station WTVR.

“There are only three Black pages in the page class of 2019. When you went to hand out the cotton you handed it straight to another African American page, then you proceeded to hand it to me, I did not take it. The other page took the cotton, but it made her very uncomfortable. I will give you the benefit of the doubt, because you gave it to some other pages. But you followed this up by asking: ‘Can you imagine being an enslaved person, and having to pick this all day?’

“From the time we walked into the mansion to the time in the cottage house, I did not receive a welcoming vibe. It was very testing to know I had to go somewhere, and I had no choice as to if I went, I had to be respectful, and be on my best behavior, even when the people in positions of power I was around were not doing the same.”

Pamela Northam: “I regret that I upset anyone”

The daughter of State Senator William M. Stanley Jr was also among the Senate pages present for the tour. According to Senator Stanley, his daughter claims that Mrs Northam handed samples of cotton to all of the twenty pages, not just the three African-American children.

Despite the contradictory accounts, the Virginia First Lady has nevertheless issued a statement expressing regret:

“As First Lady, I have worked over the course of the last year to begin telling the full story of the Executive Mansion, which has mainly centered on Virginia’s governors. The Historic Kitchen should be a feature of Executive Mansion tours, and I believe it does a disservice to Virginians to omit the stories of the enslaved people who lived and worked there–that’s why I have been engaged in an effort to thoughtfully and honestly share this important story since I arrived in Richmond.

“I have provided the same educational tour to Executive Mansion visitors over the last few months and used a variety of artifacts and agricultural crops with the intention of illustrating a painful period of Virginia history. I regret that I have upset anyone.”

Although contrite in tone, Mrs Northam’s statement is not mean to be taken as an admission of guilt. A spokesperson from her office strongly denied that Mrs Northam singled out the three black pages present for her tour.

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