Governor Ralph Northam (D-Va.) was forced to pull the plug on the first stop of his “reconciliation tour” to Virginia Union University (VUU), a historically black college after students expressed concern about the visit.
As IJR previously reported, Northam has been embroiled in a scandal for the past several weeks after yearbook photos surfaced showing his page with a picture of two men, one in a Ku Klux Klan robe and the other in blackface. Northam denied that he was in the yearbook photo but admitted to wearing blackface as part of a Michael Jackson costume.
In an attempt to salvage his governorship, Northam announced he would be going on a “racial reconciliation tour” to get a better understanding of the racial issues in the United States instead of just resigning like he was asked to do my many Democratic leaders.
VUU was listed as the first stop for Northam’s tour, but students quickly expressed that they would rather not have the governor attempt to “gain atonement” from them, particularly because the trip was scheduled during the celebration for the Richmond 34, honoring the students that were arrested for a diner sit-in while confronting racial segregation.
Jamon Phenix, president of VUU’s student association, wrote a letter calling for Northam to skip the event, writing:
“It is our understanding that you are seeking to gain atonement from your past actions while simultaneously affirming your constituents that you hold true to your beliefs in leading Virginia forward. We are in support of an honest conversation around race and reconciliation to move our great state forward. However, we feel as though your attendance takes away from the historical significance of our commemoration of the Richmond 34.”
In response to the concerns raised by Phenix, Northam issued a statement announcing that he would no longer be attending the event.
While I appreciate @VAUnion1865's invitation to attend tomorrow's chapel service, I respect the wishes of the student body. In lieu of my attendance, I will host the Richmond 34 at the Executive Mansion on Friday to honor their bravery and courage. pic.twitter.com/qIdX05cvsa
— Ralph Northam (@GovernorVA) February 20, 2019
“I appreciate the original invitation of VUU’s administration, but I will abide by the students’ wishes,” Northam wrote. “I accept the Student Government Association’s invitation for future dialogue and honest conversation on the issues of race, reconciliation, and equity.”
As the Washington Post reported, some of the members of the Richmond 34 disagreed with the students’ calls for Northam to avoid the event.
Richmond 34 member Elizabeth Johnson Rice wrote a letter to Northam, saying, “I represent many who extend this invitation to you to come and witness and celebrate this 59th anniversary with us. We also want your presence to be a learning tool for atonement and the need for forgiveness for all of us.”
Although Northam will not be attending the event at VUU, he did note that he would be hosting any members of the Richmond 34 who wanted to attend.
“In lieu of my attendance, I will host the Richmond 34 at the Executive Mansion on Friday to honor their bravery and courage,” Northam noted.
While it’s clear that the younger students want nothing to do with Northam, it seems as though others see a path for Northam to use his past as a learning experience.
As IJR previously reported, recent polls show Northam has a dismal 17 percent approval rating and 43 percent of the state wants to see him resign.