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'We need to tell the truth' | How a racist photo led Northam to reckon with racial injustice as governor

"The last thing I wanted to do is hurt people. So, it was a very troubling time," Northam said.

RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) ran on the promise of moving the commonwealth forward, but quickly realized, he had to first address Virginia's past.

Northam had to respond to the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, just months before taking office and the perpetual protests for racial equality in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis.

On top of those issues, the governor had to address his own controversial past.

"The last thing I wanted to do is hurt people. So, it was a very troubling time,” Northam said in and interview with WUSA9. 

In early 2019, an image surfaced from the governor’s 1984 medical school yearbook page showing someone in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe.

Northam still denies appearing in that photo, but did admit to moonwalking once as Michael Jackson in blackface.

“It was a dance contest. I had always liked Michael Jackson. I actually won the contest,” Northam said during a press conference in 2019 explaining his past actions.

“The eyes can't see sometimes what the brain doesn't know," Northam said. "My brain knows a lot more than it did four years ago and I think that's a good thing and I'm a better person because of it." 

Credit: WUSA
Governor Northam speaking with WUSA 9's Lorenzo Hall at the Executive Mansion in Richmond, Va.

If Northam’s opponents and even his closest allies had their way, the governor would've resigned in February 2019 after the racist image circulated, but, he decided to stay to—as he put it—“listen and learn.”

"Oh, I've learned a whole lot. I'll tell you one thing I've learned. When we talk about racial issues, I've learned Black oppression. We talk about that a lot. It's alive and well, just in a different form," the governor said. "I think a lot of people that look like me think that Black oppression ended with slavery, but then we had Jim Crow, then we had massive resistance and then mass incarceration."

For those lessons, Northam decided to put racial equity at the forefront of his agenda for his remaining time.

He established a commission to bring to light any laws that gave way to racial discrimination.

Northam’s administration legalized the recreational use of marijuana, repealed the death penalty, and also eliminated holidays and statues honoring Confederate generals.

RELATED: Virginia cannabis arrests drop nearly 50% following decriminalization

"The last thing that we need are statues that glorify the people that fought for the institution of slavery,” he said. "We don't need them. Not everybody agrees by the way, but they're gone."

Northam also got rid of a few items in the executive mansion and added items to uplift Black history. "When we moved in here, I had a sofa, a TV, a treadmill and some weights and it's all gone."

The governor and first lady began transforming the executive mansion to prominently feature the stories of Virginians of color, along with their contributions to the commonwealth, including the painful tales of those who were enslaved and worked in that house.

RELATED: Governor Northam announces launch of new African American history course in Virginia schools

"We need to tell the truth," Northam said. "I went back interestingly and looked at my 4th grade history book. There are pictures in that 4th grade history book of enslaved Africans landing on the shores like they were having a big party. Everybody was happy. Well, that's not accurate information. We need to make sure what we're teaching our children is accurate and adequate."

Northam said without question, his administration's agenda concerning race and equality likely contributed to the politicization of Critical Race Theory during the 2021 gubernatorial race.

CRT, more broadly, examines how racism has shaped and impacted public policy, laws and modern life well beyond slavery.

"We will absolutely remove, rid the political agenda that has made its way into our classrooms by banning Critical Race Theory on day one,” Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin (R) said during a campaign rally in 2021.

Critical Race Theory is not taught in Virginia Public Schools.

"I think the governor-elect and the next administration, they have a great opportunity to build on our progress and also a responsibility,” Northam said.

When asked if he believes they will, Northam responded, "If any of what, the progress we've made is taken back, I think that the people will speak and say no, this is not what we wanted."

With hours remaining at the helm of Virginia's government, Northam said his experience leading was humbling. He admits that he and the commonwealth still have a lot more to learn. "I'm glad that Virginians stuck with me."

Northam is a pediatric neurologist and plans to return to his private practice in Norfolk.  

Macaulay Porter, a spokesperson for Youngkin, said, “A broad coalition of Virginians elected one of the most diverse statewide tickets in Virginia's history. And on Day One, Governor Youngkin will get to work on delivering for ALL Virginians.”

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