The racist photo in Northam’s EVMS yearbook remains a mystery, even after an investigation. Here’s why

Richard Homan, President and Provost of EVMS, delivers opening remarks during news conference and release of yearbook investigation results on May 22, 2019. (Southside Daily/Lucretia Cunningham)
Richard Homan, president and provost of EVMS, delivers opening remarks during news conference and release of yearbook investigation results on May 22, 2019. (Southside Daily/Lucretia Cunningham)

NORFOLK — A public affairs solutions law firm has finalized their investigation into Eastern Virginia Medical School’s yearbook publication processes nearly four months after a racist photo scandal involving Gov. Ralph Northam.

The result: Inconclusive.

McGuireWoods LLC attorney, Benjamin L. Hatch, delivered the results in a news conference Wednesday, citing they could not “determine the identity of either individual depicted in the photograph.”

Related Story: Probe into racist photo in governor’s yearbook may end soon

The Norfolk medical school commissioned McGuireWoods LLC to conduct an independent investigation after a conservative news outlet leaked a Nortam’s 1984 EVMS yearbook page where there’s a man in blackface next to someone in a Ku Klux Klan hood.

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.

Throughout the course of the investigation, the team interviewed 52 individuals including multiple interviews with Northam, but found no leads.

Investigators wrote in their final report, “Memories fade over such a lengthy time period and we were unable to contact some individuals who may have relevant knowledge.”

Related Story: Gov. Northam says that wasn’t him in racist photo

The firm also scrutinized the ultimate culture and diversity of the campus and how offensive content could have been published in the school’s yearbook.

The lawyers also said yearbooks from 1976 were published with little to no oversight by EVMS administration and “repeatedly contained other content that could be offensive to women, minorities, certain ethnic groups and others” up to the latest issue in 2013.

“There was no evidence to indicate EVMS excluded students, but as reflected in some witness interviews, it appears there was often not enough infrastructure or funding to fully support past diversity initiatives,” Hatch said.

Richard Homan, president, provost and dean of EVMS praised the school’s recent diversity and inclusion efforts.

“In 2013 we created an office of Diversity and Inclusion and hired our founding Vice President at that time,” Homan said. “We implemented a holistic review process for medical student admissions to look beyond the MCAT and GPA in order to include components of their background and life experiences. That process nearly doubled the number of minority students in our program over the last six years.”

Within days after the scandal broke, the school formed an External Community Advisory Board to evaluate its current culture and make any recommendations for the way forward.

The image shows Gov. Ralph Northam’s page in his 1984 EVMS school yearbook. It’s unclear who the people in the picture are, but the rest of the page is filled with pictures of Northam and lists his undergraduate alma mater and other information about him. (Courtesy of Republican Party of Virginia)
The image shows Gov. Ralph Northam’s page in his 1984 EVMS school yearbook. It’s unclear who the people in the picture are, but the rest of the page is filled with pictures of Northam and lists his undergraduate alma mater and other information about him.
(Courtesy of Republican Party of Virginia)

“We look forward to receiving the Advisory Board’s report in the fall and will make that report public,” Homan said.

Northam’s chief of staff, Clark Mercer, told investigators that the governor was “in a state of shock” when the photo first surfaced.

Virginia Legislative Black Caucus Chairman Del. Lamont Bagby said the report “doesn’t change a thing as it relates to the challenges that we have to do,” adding: “We’ve got 400 years of stuff to clean up.”

Virginia politics was turned upside down in a matter of hours last winter after a conservative website posted the picture. Black lawmaker and other key Democratic groups and top allies immediately called on him to resign.

During the uproar, Northam defied calls to resign and said he wanted to focus his remaining three years in office on addressing racial inequities.

The pressure to step down significantly lessened after scandal enveloped his potential successors, both Democrats. Two women publicly accused Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax of sexual assault, which he denied. And just days after calling on Northam to resign, Attorney General Mark Herring announced he, too, had worn blackface in the 1980s when he was in college.

Both Fairfax and Herring also rejected calls to resign. And other politicians around the South soon had their own explaining to do over yearbook images taken long ago.

The three interlocking scandals briefly raised the possibility that Virginia’s top three Democrats would lose their jobs and the Republican House speaker would become governor.

In a statement following Wednesday’s news conference, Northam said: “I have cooperated with Richard Cullen and his team over the course of their investigation, both by making myself available for interviews and by turning over the findings of my private inquiry into the matter. I am not in the racist and offensive photo that appears under my name in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook.”

“That being said, I know and understand the events of early February and my response to them have caused hurt for many Virginians and for that, I am sorry. I felt it was important to take accountability for the photo’s presence on my page, but rather than providing clarity, I instead deepened pain and confusion.

In visits with local leaders across the Commonwealth, I have engaged in frank and necessary dialogue on how I can best utilize the power of the governor’s office to enact meaningful progress on issues of equity and better focus our administration’s efforts for the remainder of my term. That conversation will continue, with ensuing action, and I am committed to working to build a better and more equitable Virginia for all who call it home.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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John Mangalonzo (john@localvoicemedia.com) is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.