Virginia First Lady Gave Black Children Cotton, Asked Them to ‘Imagine Being a Slave’

Pam Northam.
Pam Northam. Photo: Alex Edelman/Getty Images

Following an incident with Governor Ralph Northam’s wife, Pam Northam, a member of the First Couple of Virginia is being accused of racial insensitivity once again. According to the Washington Post, on February 21, Northam was assisting with a group eighth graders touring the governor’s mansion when she handed out pieces of raw cotton to three of the black teens in the group.

Northam was reportedly explaining the history of the mansion and its attached buildings, which were all built by slaves in 1813. It was during this time that Northam reportedly “asked these three pages (the only African-American pages in the program) if they could imagine what it must have been like to pick cotton all day,” according to Leah Dozier Walker, who oversees the Office of Equity and Community Engagement at the state Education Department, and is the mother of one of the girls on the trip.

Walker wrote a letter about the incident on February 25, addressing the governor and other lawmakers. “I can not for the life of me understand why the first lady would single out the African American pages for this — or — why she would ask them such an insensitive question.”

Attached to Walker’s letter was an additional letter from her daughter to Pam Northam. “I will give you the benefit of the doubt, because you gave it to some other pages,” the girl wrote. “But you followed this up by asking: ‘Can you imagine being an enslaved person, and having to pick this all day?’, which didn’t help the damage you had done.”

Reps from Governor Northam’s office claim that she gave the cotton to whoever was standing nearest to her, and hadn’t intended to target the black children in the group.

“I regret that I have upset anyone,” Pam Northam wrote, in a statement sent to the Post via the governor’s spokeswoman, Ofirah Yheskel. In a longer statement that Northam sent to Wavy.com, she stated that she planned on working with experts and historians to improve the tour of the governor’s mansion.

“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.”

The cotton incident occurred just three weeks after it was revealed that Governor Northam had worn black face in a medical school yearbook photo. Calls for his resignation were ignored by the governor, who instead embarked on a “racial sensitivity” tour that was widely criticized.

Pam Northam Asked Black Children to Imagine ‘Being a Slave’