Virginia governor’s medical school yearbook page shows men in blackface and a KKK robe

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam speaks during a press conference relating to a bipartisan agreement on a coal ash bill at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., on Jan. 24.
(Steve Helber / Associated Press)
Washington Post

A photograph on Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page shows a man wearing blackface next to another person in Ku Klux Klan robe.

The image is in a 1984 yearbook from Eastern Virginia Medical School on a page with other photos of Northam and personal information about the future governor.

Northam, a pediatric neurologist, graduated from the Norfolk medical school in 1984 after earlier graduating from Virginia Military Institute.


The page is labeled Ralph Shearer Northam, along with pictures of him in a jacket and tie, casual clothes and alongside his restored Corvette.

It shows two people, one in plaid pants, bow tie and blackface, and the other in full Klan robes. Both men appear to be holding beer cans.

READ MORE: Florida elections chief resigns after photos of him in blackface and ‘Katrina victim’ shirt emerge »

The person in blackface is smiling. Beneath the photo is a writeup about Northam listing his alma mater, noting that his interest is pediatrics and giving a quote: “There are more old drunks than old doctors in this world so I think I’ll have another beer.”

A spokeswoman for the governor did not have an immediate response.

The web site Big League Politics first posted the picture Friday afternoon. Big League Politics is a conservative website founded by Patrick Howley, a former writer for the Daily Caller and Breitbart. It is owned by Mustard Seed Media, an outfit headed by Reilly O’Neal, a political operative whose clients included former Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore.

The revelation comes amid a wild week in which Northam, a Democrat, was criticized after he made comments defending a bill that would have lifted restrictions on late-term abortions.

Northam has built his 12-year political career on a clean-cut image as a soft-spoken doctor and Army veteran who headed Honor Council at VMI, a demanding job that required him to pass judgment on fellow students who lied or violated the school’s honor code.

First elected to the state Senate from Norfolk in 2007, Northam has had a charmed political career. He was courted by Republicans because of his conservative leanings, and was identified early by then-Gov. Tim Kaine, a fellow Democrat, as future governor material because of his experience in both healthcare and the military. Northam served in the Army for eight years after medical school, treating soldiers wounded in the Gulf War.

Politicos in Richmond, Va., reacted in muted disbelief as the news first circulated Friday, and many declined to comment on the record. Northam is not a dynamic public speaker, but has a reputation for sterling character that has won the trust of Republicans, who worked with him last year to pass Medicaid expansion after four years of resisting it under previous Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

When he ran for governor in 2017, Northam paid special attention to black churches, often attending two or three every Sunday. His home pastor is African American. After the racial violence in Charlottesville, Va., that summer, Northam was among the quickest Virginia political figures to react, making an emotional plea that all Confederate monuments should come down.

He later walked that back and now says it should be up to localities, but said recently that his personal belief is that such statues are harmful.

Northam, 59, grew up on the Eastern Shore of Virginia in the fishing village of Onancock. His father was a judge and his mother was a school teacher. Northam and his brother attended a desegregated public high school, where Northam played basketball and baseball.

The origins of blackface date to minstrel shows from the 19th century, when white actors covered themselves in black grease paint to portray African Americans in a cartoonish, dehumanizing way. The minstrel shows put forth racist notions of African Americans as primitive and inferior.

Last week, Michael Ertel, Florida’s secretary of state, resigned after the emergence of photos from 2005 of him in blackface, apparently mimicking victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Former NBC journalist Megyn Kelly stirred controversy in October for defending blackface in Halloween costumes.

Vozzella, Morrison and Schneider write for the Washington Post.