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Probe into Northam’s blackface scandal ‘inconclusive’

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 5/24/2019, 6 a.m.
Was Gov. Ralph S. Northam actually one of the people in the racist photo on his Eastern Virginia Medical School ...
After apologizing a day earlier, the governor backpedals during a Feb. 2 news conference at the Executive Mansion, saying that he is neither person in the racist photo on his yearbook page. However, he admitted during the news conference that he wore blackface to portray superstar Michael Jackson during a 1984 dance contest. First Lady Pam Northam listened in the background. Photo by Sandra Sellars Richmond Free Press

“We understand President Homan’s reasoning was EVMS should not become involved, or be seen to become involved, in an election as it is a public body and a public institution, and that EVMS did not want there to be any suggestion that it had tried to influence Gov. Northam in any respect by calling the photograph to his attention,” the report states.

Dr. Homan stood by his decision to keep silent about the photograph during Wednesday’s news conference at which the report was released.

“I would make the same decision now,” Dr. Homan said. “We’re apolitical, and I did not feel that it was a necessary disclosure to make.”

He said he is charged with focusing on the culture and climate at the school and the students’ academic progress.

According to the report, Gov. Northam expressed puzzlement that the photo surfaced only after he won the governorship. Though he said he never bought the yearbook and never saw the photo before Feb. 1, he said he would have expected past political opponents to have learned about it.

That never happened during his two elections to the state Senate, his run for lieutenant governor in 2014 or the 2017 gubernatorial election.

Dr. Homan previously publicly apologized on behalf of the school for the photograph and other bigoted photos that appeared in other EVMS yearbooks before he halted publication in 2013.

The report noted that a school’s director of alumni affairs noticed the photo while preparing for a reunion. EVMS officials decided not to put the 1984 yearbook on a table with editions from other years.

“The EVMS personnel who became aware of the photograph expressed surprise and disappointment in the photograph,” the report notes.

“We can’t change the past but we can refuse to be defined by it,” Dr. Homan said at the news conference. “We can reflect critically on our past and commit to learning everything we can from it. Today, we take another step in learning those lessons.”

In trying to determine who was in the photo, investigators spoke to five members of the 1984 yearbook staff and others who were EVMS students or staff in the 1980s.

The McGuireWoods report is likely to be the last word on the fading scandal.

At a news conference on Feb. 2 when Gov. Northam denied being in the photo, he said he would seek to find how it got on his yearbook page. He has not brought up the subject again or released any new information to back up his assertion that he wasn’t in the photo. He suggested at the time that the picture could have been added to his yearbook page in a layout mix-up.

But the McGuireWoods report stated, and Mr. Cullen said at the news conference, that despite the haphazard and chaotic nature of the student-run publication process, only one such mistake was found — in the 1986 yearbook.

The probe found other yearbooks, which were published from 1976 to 2013, “repeatedly contained other content that could be offensive to women, minorities, certain ethnic groups and others.”

The yearbooks were “almost entirely student-run” with little to no staff oversight, the report stated.

The probe also addressed more broadly issues around diversity at EVMS. It found no evidence that the culture at EVMS ever excluded students, but the report states that in tight financial times, the medical school didn’t always fully fund or support diversity efforts.

People interviewed by the law firm said that the infrastructure and funding has significantly improved in the past five to 10 years.

Since the photo appeared, Gov. Northam asserted that his only brush with blackface involved rubbing shoe polish on his cheeks when he impersonated Michael Jackson in a dance contest in San Antonio that he won after showcasing his imitation of the entertainer’s “moon walk.”

The governor largely hid out at Capitol Square for the first two months after the photo appeared but is back to making public appearances.

Gov. Northam also has pledged to do all he can to eliminate racial barriers during the remainder of his term, and he has created a position for a director of diversity, equity and inclusion to assist him in reviewing and changing state policies.