Amid an ongoing scandal surrounding her husband’s history with race, Virginia first lady Pam Northam is now under fire for her own racist blunder. Just last week, on a tour of the Virginia governor’s mansion, Northam apparently handed pieces of raw cotton to African American children and asked them to imagine being enslaved and forced to pick the plant, according to the Washington Post.
“The Governor and Mrs. Northam have asked the residents of the Commonwealth to forgive them for their racially insensitive past actions,” Leah Dozier Walker, who leads the Office of Equity and Community Engagement at Virginia’s Education Department, wrote in a letter to lawmakers and Ralph Northam’s office. Her daughter was one of those who was handed the cotton.
“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,” Walker continued.
Northam’s representatives and one parent who was on the tour say that the first lady handed the cotton to many children, not just the two black children.
“I regret that I have upset anyone,” Pam Northam said in a statement.
The incident took place on a tour of one portion of the mansion, which was built with slave labor, given by the first lady during an event to honor pages who had served during the last Virginia Senate session. The kitchen of the mansion has been restored in recent years as a way to honor the enslaved people who worked there.
From the Post:
Before a huge fireplace with iron cooking implements, Pam Northam held up samples of cotton and tobacco to a group of about 20 children and described the enslaved workers who picked it.
“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,” Walker wrote. “I can not for the life of me understand why the first lady would single out the African American pages for this—or—why she would ask them such an insensitive question.”
Walker’s daughter wrote a letter to Pam Northam in response to the incident.
“I will give you the benefit of the doubt, because you gave it to some other pages,” she wrote. “But you followed this up by asking: ‘Can you imagine being an enslaved person, and having to pick this all day?’, which didn’t help the damage you had done.”
“The cotton itself is a symbol of murder, rape, displacement and the radiating effects of the transatlantic slave trade that black Virginians are still experiencing today,” Virginia Delegate Marcia S. “Cia” Price, a member of the state Senate’s Black Caucus, told the Post. “I don’t know that you have to have actual cotton handed to the children to understand slavery was bad.”
The Northam family’s history with race first came under scrutiny at the beginning of February, when a photo surfaced from the governor’s medical school yearbook page showing two people dressed in blackface and a Klu Klux Klan hood.
Since then, the scandal has grown to encompass other leaders in Virginia and beyond. Ralph Northam has repeatedly said he will not resign, despite widespread calls from state and national Democrats asking him to step down. According to the Post, Pam Northam has been one of her husbands greatest supporters during the scandal, encouraging him to stay in office.
Pam Northam says she still intends to work on telling the story of Virigina’s enslaved people “thoughtfully and honestly.”
“I am still committed to chronicling the important history of the Historic Kitchen, and will continue to engage historians and experts on the best way to do so in the future,” she said in her statement.