Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam admitted to wearing a racist costume in college after a shocking photo of his yearbook page featuring two people wearing blackface and a Ku Klux Klan robe surfaced on Friday.
The first-term Democratic governor said in a statement he was one of the two individuals photographed in the 1984 photograph taken while he was in medical school, calling it “clearly racist and offensive.”
“I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision cost then and now,” he continued. “This behavior is not in keeping with who I am today… I recognize it will take time and serious effort to heal the damage this conduct has caused.”
In a video statement, Northam reiterated his intention to “continue [the] fight” for a better Virginia by remaining in office.
The photo is from Eastern Virginia Medical School’s 1984 yearbook. In addition to the blackface and KKK photo, the yearbook page, also features Northam’s name and three images of him: An official portrait, a photograph of Northam donning a cowboy hat; and another of him sitting in front of a Corvette.
The page also lists Northam’s alma mater (Virginia Military Institute), his interest (“Pediatrics”), and his senior quote (“There are more old drunks than old doctors in this world so I think I’ll have another beer”).
Far-right news site Big League Politics first published the image Friday afternoon and the school subsequently confirmed its authenticity to The Daily Beast and other news outlets.
Calls on Northam to resign started almost immediately and cascaded throughout the night, including the NAACP and Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and former Obama cabinet official Julián Castro. Liberal groups Priorities USA, MoveOn, and Daily Kos also called on Northam to step down. The Virginia Republican Party’s chairman wants him gone “immediately.”
The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus said “these pictures rip off the scabs of an excruciatingly painful history and are a piercing reminder of this nation's sins. Those who would excuse the pictures are just as culpable.”
One prominent Virginia Democrat came to Northam’s defense, however. The state’s Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) told The Washington Post that the governor’s life has been “exactly the opposite” of what the yearbook photo may represent.
“While it’s in very poor taste, I would think there is problem no one in the General Assembly who would like their college conduct examined. I would hate to have to go back and examine my two years in the Army. Trust me. I was 18 years old and I was a handful, OK?” Saslaw said. “His life since then has been anything but. It’s been a life of helping people, and many times for free.”
While running for governor in 2017, Northam acknowledged his family owned slaves.
“My family’s complicated story is similar to Virginia’s complex history,” he told The Richmond Times-Dispatch. “We’re a progressive state, but we once had the largest number of slaves in the union.”
As a candidate, Northam called for Confederate statues to be “taken down and moved into museums” in the wake of the deadly white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville. Northam has so far not implemented the policy, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Northam was elected governor in Nov. 2017, after defeating Ed Gillespie, former chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Northam was already under attack this week for comments he made that were likened to support for infanticide. Northam made the remarks on Wednesday regarding legislation that would have loosened abortion restrictions in the state.
If Northam resigns, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax would become governor—and only the second African-American to hold the post in Virginia history.