Chesapeake teens stand up for Virginia first lady after she was criticized by their peer

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CHESAPEAKE, Va. - Virginia First Lady Pamela Northam was put under scrutiny Wednesday after handing out cotton to pages - including some who were African American - during a tour of the Governor’s Mansion the day before the end of the session.

A page wrote a letter to the first lady saying her behavior was "beyond inappropriate."

But Friday, News 3 met up with other teens who are part of the page program who disagree with the teen who wrote the letter.

Madelyn Miller (left) and Celina Harris (right)

13-year-old Celina Harris and 14-year old Madelyn Miller of Chesapeake were also part of the House of Delegates Page program.

They said they took part in the recent tours of the Governor’s Mansion and said they were part of a seven-week internship program in Richmond.

Both teens said they loved the program and learned a lot.

They said they were shocked by a letter a fellow page, who was African American, sent to Northam that criticized her for handing out the cotton.

The letter stated that the first lady said, "Can you imagine being an enslaved person and having to pick this all day?"

The mother of the teen who wrote the letter sent News 3 the following statement Friday night:

“My daughter is a 14 year old girl, who was appalled and deeply offended by the passing around of  cotton and the suggestion that she imagine being an enslaved person picking it all day.

I support my daughter and am proud of her for sharing her concerns with the First Lady in writing. Her approach to resolving her concerns demonstrated a great deal of maturity, leadership, and self control.  I  do not expect for non black students or parents to understand the pain and suffering African Americans associate with cotton - or of being asked to relive the horrors associated with the racist institution of American slavery - even in a historical context."

But Harris and Miller both said they believe the first lady was trying to educate in the teens in the former quarters where the slaves used to work and live in the cottage near the mansion.

“She explained everything down to the tile of the floors,” said Harris. “She took a piece of the cotton and handed it to the nearest page and we all passed it around.”

“I’ve had teachers who have passed around cotton before when we were learning about slavery,” said Miller.

In the letter, the teen criticized the first lady and wrote “the comments and just the way you carried yourself during this time was beyond inappropriate.”

But Harris and Miller disagree said they weren’t offended at all during the tour.

“I don’t want anyone to be misled by the situation by just hearing the negative side of something that’s not negative at all. You can pick apart anything and make it negative if you really try,” said Harris.

“She seemed like a nice, kind woman and she didn’t mean any harm by what she said at all,” said Miller.

“I think she was just trying to share history,” said Harris.

Northam's office sent News 3 the following statement Wednesday on her behalf:

"As First Lady, I have worked over the course of the last year to begin telling the full story of the Executive Mansion, which has mainly centered on Virginia's governors. The Historic Kitchen should be a feature of Executive Mansion tours, and I believe it does a disservice to Virginians to omit the stories of the enslaved people who lived and worked there--that's why I have been engaged in an effort to thoughtfully and honestly share this important story since I arrived in Richmond. 

I have provided the same educational tour to Executive Mansion visitors over the last few months and used a variety of artifacts and agricultural crops with the intention of illustrating a painful period of Virginia history. I regret that I have upset anyone. 

I am still committed to chronicling the important history of the Historic Kitchen and will continue to engage historians and experts on the best way to do so in the future."

CBS says the page's parent is a state Education Department employee, who has said she believes her child.

Ofirah Yheskel, communications director for the governor, strongly denied that Northam singled out black pages during the tours. Yheskel said she has talked with the first lady about the alleged incident since her office learned about the accusation.

This alleged incident comes nearly a month after the governor became embroiled in controversy of his own after a racist photo was found on his 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook page.

On Thursday, the first lady's team tried to clarify what happened, saying Northam was not singling out any student. They say she's reached out to the student and the student's mom, but Northam hasn't heard back.

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