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Childhood friends of Gov. Northam: ‘Ralph never said anything that was racially insensitive’

Posted at 11:33 PM, Feb 19, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-19 23:35:11-05

ACCOMACK COUNTY, Va. -- Tucked back behind a line of pine trees is the home where Governor Ralph Northam grew up on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

It's a home where Reverend Robert Garris said African-Americans were welcomed.

"I've eaten at his mother's house, as a matter of fact his mother and father's house was well known by the African American community," Garris said.

Garris grew up playing sports with Northam.

"Governor Northam went into areas that some whites would not go into, some African-Americans neighborhoods that some whites wouldn't go into," Garris said.

Including, a black neighborhood just outside downtown Onancock.

"Our Governor played baseball and basketball right around Boundary Avenue in the 70s," Garris said.

Garris calls Northam a friend.

"Ralph never said anything that was racially insensitive all these years," Garris said.

So, when the racist image from Northam's Medical School yearbook surfaced, Garris said he had trouble reconciling the image with the boy he remembers, and the man he knows today.

"The image of the blackface and the KKK was not an image that warmed my heart, it troubled me, it bothered me," Garris said. "That is certainly not the Ralph that I grew up with. He is not a racist. I would not hang around a racist."

In fact, other African-Americans we spoke with in town off camera called Northam a good person, and said they like him.

But, the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, and scores of black leaders, have called for him to resign.

"As much as I love the guy, there is no opportunity for him to continue to serve as Governor," Delegate Lamont Bagby said.

Many question why Northam originally admitted he was in the photo, but then walked that back the next day and said it was not him.

He later admitted to wearing blackface to imitate Michael Jackson at a dance contest.

"Blackface was not a part of the curriculum in our literature books coming up in the 70s and early 80s, we knew about vaudeville acts but we were not extremely educated on blackface," Garris said.

Yet, Garris and others who knew Northam when he was young, point to images in yearbooks from the old Onancock High School that show Northam pictured with black classmates.

"We're not making this up, that's exactly the way it was," Northam's assistant principal at Onancock, Dennis Custis said.

Custis took us inside the former school where Northam graduated seven years after Accomack County Schools were integrated.

"This is the real deal, the camerman is not saying smile and act like you like each other, they're smiling because they do like each other," Custis said.

Around that time, several white families chose to send their children to all white private schools, but Northam attended public school.

"All the reporters that have asked me that question have come from the view that he seems to be obviously a racist and explain that, and I can't explain that because that's not Ralph," Custis said.

"I couldn't believe it," Custis said about seeing the photograph.

Fallout from the racist photo scandal has put a spotlight on Onancock and the Eastern Shore with some wondering if racism ran rampant there when Northam grew up.

The Governor himself even seemed to hint at it in his official press conference after the photo came to light.

"While I did not appear in this photo, I am not surprised by its appearance in the EVMS yearbook, in the place and time where I grew up, many actions that we rightfully recognize as abhorrent today were commonplace," Northam said.

But, while Custis admits Onancock was not perfect, he believes the town fared better than most.

"For the most part, I've always felt like we were ahead of the curve, I thought we were ahead of the curve in integration,I was a student when schools were first integrated, to the best of my knowledge there were no major incidents," Custis said.

And, while Garris said he does not recall Northam, in particular, ever saying or doing anything racially insensitive, he said that if he did, he hopes he will learn from it.

"I pray that Governor Northam and a lot of us will learn from it. We've all made mistakes in our lives and sometimes we all have to take a little time to bounce back," Garris said. "I'm ready to move on if this was some insensitive act he was a part of I'm ready to move on."