World

Virginia probe can't conclude whether governor is in 1980s blackface photo

An investigation ordered by a Virginia medical school failed to determine whether Gov. Ralph Northam is in a 1984 yearbook photo of a man in blackface next to someone in a Ku Klux Klan hood.

Gov. Ralph Northam resisted calls to resign after yearbook posted online in February

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said he didn't believe he was in the picture in question, though he did admit to wearing blackface during that era to impersonate Michael Jackson. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

An investigation ordered by a Virginia medical school failed to determine whether Gov. Ralph Northam is in a 1984 yearbook photo of a man in blackface next to someone in a Ku Klux Klan hood.

Investigators with a law firm hired by Eastern Virginia Medical School said Wednesday they couldn't "conclusively determine" the identities of either person in the 35-year-old photo.

They also said they couldn't discern how the picture was placed on Northam's yearbook page, but found no evidence it was placed there by mistake or as a prank.

"No individual that we interviewed has told us from personal knowledge that the governor is in the photograph, and no individual with knowledge has come forward to us to report that the governor is in the photograph," said the report, conducted by the law firm McGuireWoods.

The findings are unlikely to have a major effect on state politics or Northam, who has been trying to regain his footing for several months.

The school said it would make the written 36-page report of the investigation public. Officials said Northam was interviewed twice, and more than 50 people were questioned during the investigation.

Virginia politics was turned upside down in a matter of hours in early February after a conservative website posted a picture online of Northam's medical school yearbook page.

The Democratic governor issued two apologies within hours, initially indicating that he was one of the people in the picture. By midnight it appeared his entire political base was gone, with the Virginia legislative black caucus, other key Democratic groups and top allies calling on him to resign.

Northam reversed course at a news conference the next day, saying he was convinced it was not him in the picture, while revealing that he did in fact wear blackface once decades ago, to look like Michael Jackson for a dance contest.

Authorities acknowledged the governor's "inconsistent public statements" at a Wednesday morning news conference.

"The best we can conclude is that he erred on the side of caution initially and immediately regretted not having denied," said attorney Richard Cullen, who led the investigation.

Defying calls to resign, Northam had said he wanted to focus his remaining three years in office on addressing longstanding racial inequities. While he was all but invisible in February and much of March, the governor is making routine public appearances again.

And he's won praise from black lawmakers and others for several recent policy moves. Those include a halt to suspending the suspension of licences for motorists with unpaid court fines and costs, and a review into how public schools teach U.S. racial history.

Overlapping scandals

The heat for Northam to resign significantly lessened after scandal enveloped his potential successors.

Two women publicly accused Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax of sexual assault, which he denied, and Attorney General Mark Herring announced he'd also worn blackface in college, just days after he too called on Northam to resign. Both Fairfax and Herring also resisted calls to resign. And other politicians around the South soon had their own explaining to do over yearbook images taken long ago.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam insists that no, on further consideration, that's not him in the racist photo that appeared on his 1984 medical school yearbook page. The announcement did nothing to quell the clamour from his own party for him to resign. 2:07

But the incident will forever mark Northam's time in office, and opponents still use it against him. House majority leader Del. Todd Gilbert recently said Northam had chosen to "repair his own racist legacy," rather than protect victims of domestic abuse after the governor vetoed a bill requiring a mandatory jail term for repeat domestic abusers.

The photo on Northam's yearbook page was one of at least three blackface photos in the 1984 publication, which was reviewed by an Associated Press reporter. One of the others shows a man in blackface who is dressed up as a woman wearing a wig. A caption reads: "'Baby Love,' who ever thought Diana Ross would make it to Medical School!"

Calling the photos "shockingly abhorrent," school leaders commissioned an investigation into past yearbooks and the school's culture. Thousands of letters and emails were sent to alumni asking for information as part of the investigation.

Former students who worked on the 1984 yearbook have disagreed over whether the photo could have been mistakenly placed on Northam's page.

Dr. Giac Chan Nguyen-Tan, a physician practising in Connecticut, said earlier this year that a page he laid out for the yearbook was changed without his knowledge before publication.

But fellow yearbook staffer Dr. William Elwood disagreed that any photos were mixed up and said it was unlikely someone could have pulled a prank, because a limited number of people had keys to the yearbook room.