Virginia author’s investigative effort to uncover Governor Ralph Northam’s yearbook scandal inconclusive

August 13, 2022
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Governor Ralph Northam Pam Northam

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A Virginia author’s investigative effort to uncover the origins of a racist photo on Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page has ended inconclusively, according to the author, who has written a book that offers new details about the 2019 scandal.

“Of course, I would like to have determined exactly who was in the photograph. And I gave that my best effort,” Margaret Edds, a retired journalist and the author of “What the Eyes Can’t See,” told The Associated Press ahead of the book’s November publication.

Although Edds — like journalists and two groups of law firm investigators before her — did not arrive at any definitive answer about the photo of one person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan costume, her 296-page book offers a behind-the-scenes look at the turmoil the image sparked. The book details Northam’s decision to remain in office despite tremendous pressure, as well as the steps he took to become better informed about the legacy of racism, redeem his reputation and work with Black leaders to sharpen his administration’s focus on racial justice.

Northam participated in 14 interviews for the book, a digital review copy of which was provided to AP by The University of South Carolina Press. “What the Eyes Can’t See” also draws on interviews with Northam’s wife, Pam Northam, staffers, consultants, friends and public officials, plus documents and contemporaneous news reports.

Mark Bergman, a longtime political adviser to Northam who was among those interviewed, said Northam participated because he thought the book would serve as “the final word on what his service was about.” Northam, who returned to work as a pediatric neurologist after leaving office in January, declined comment through Bergman.

The photo surfaced in 2019 when a conservative political website published it while Northam was embroiled in a controversy over remarks he made about late-term abortion. The image appeared along with three pictures that showed Northam on his personal page in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook.

Northam initially apologized for being in the photo without saying which person was him. Then he reversed course, saying he wasn’t actually in the photo. The move did not initially quell widespread calls for his resignation. But Virginia’s 73rd governor refused to step down, and the pressure eased after the state’s two other top Democratic officeholders became caught up in controversies of their own.

Northam went on to preside over an undeniably transformative term in office as Democrats took full control of state government in the 2019 election cycle. Northam would sign into law bills that made Virginia a progressive outlier in the South — including the legalization of marijuana, abolition of the death penalty and expansion of gun control. Northam also ordered the removal of a historic statue of General Robert E. Lee from Richmond’s Historically Recognized Monument Avenue. He participated in the opening of the time capsule’s found inside the pedestal.

She also captured the chaos of the initial news breaking, including the reactions of various high-profile Democratic leaders. The book explores Northam’s response to the lack of support, as well as his efforts to regain the trust of fellow Democrats. It weaves in chapters of Virginia’s history, as well as Northam’s, exploring his family tree and formative parts of his childhood on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. In it, Northam acknowledges specific instances in which he thinks white privilege boosted his career.

As for the photo, Edds may not have discovered who was in it, but she did manage to get the editor of the yearbook — who previously had avoided reporters and investigators — to open up.

Northam may have had the most integrated childhood of any Virginia governor and initially saw thought of himself as someone who “didn’t see race,” Edds said.

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