First lady of Virginia Pam Northam “did not focus on black students” when she handed cotton to African-American children on a tour of the governor’s mansion and asked them to imagine being slaves in the fields, according to several students who participated in the tour and their parents who spoke to The Washington Post.
The report comes several days after CNN and other outlets, including the Post, reported that Leah Dozier Walker, an employee at the Virginia Department of Education, wrote to Pam Northam’s office alleging that while on a tour for state Senate pages, the first lady spoke in the mansion’s kitchen cottage — where enslaved African-Americans were forced to work — and gave black pages, including Walker’s eighth-grade daughter, pieces of cotton.
After Walker’s letter became public last week, Northam said in a statement that she regretted causing anyone anguish, stressing that the cottage provided key context to the governor’s mansion tours, and that she had conducted the same tour for all visitors.
Walker did not provide a comment to CNN on Monday, and Ofirah Yheskel, a spokeswoman for Northam’s office, said that Northam has nothing to add beyond her original statement.
On Friday, the Post, citing accounts from 10 pages given either directly to the paper or through the page’s parents, said the pages claimed the first lady “conducted their tours with sensitivity and with no special focus on the black pages.” The pages were part of a larger group of about 100 teenagers who toured the mansion in late February. Four of those who spoke to the post were in the group with Walker’s daughter and the rest were part of different groups.
“Nobody was singled out,” said Democratic state Sen. Chap Petersen, whose teenage son attended a tour of the mansion, according to the paper. Petersen, who is white, told the Post that when he asked his son, who was on the same tour as Walker’s daughter, about the alleged incident, “He said, ‘That did not happen.’ He could not have been more adamant.”
Celina Harris, a 13-year-old page who was on the tour but not in the same group as Walker’s daughter, told the Post that Northam “didn’t pick out anything or anybody.”
Noting that Harris is African-American, the Post reported that she said Northam passed around raw cotton balls and tobacco for each member of the tour to touch and that she first handed the cotton to a white page.
Another state senator — Republican William M. Stanley Jr. — told the paper his daughter was on Walker’s tour and that the first lady did not target anyone.
“The first lady’s intent was to show the horrors of slavery and to make sure everyone felt the pain they felt in some small measure,” Stanley, who is white, said, according to the Post.
In an email sent to the Post Friday night, Walker stood by her daughter’s account of the alleged incident, according to the paper.
“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,” the email read, according to the Post.
Pam Northam’s husband, Gov. Ralph Northam, has been criticized recently after a photo from his medical school yearbook page resurfaced showing two people dressed up — one in a KKK hood and mask and the other in blackface. After originally saying that he was in the picture, the governor has now denied being in it.
In a separate statement issued last week, Gov. Northam’s office disputed that only the African-American children were handed the cotton, saying that the cotton was distributed to everyone in the group as Pam Northam discussed its rough texture.