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First Lady Pam Northam criticized for handing African-American student cotton while on tour of slave quarters

Posted at 8:32 PM, Feb 27, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-27 23:33:17-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia's First Lady is under fire after she handed a piece of cotton to two African-American legislative assistants on a historical tour last week while asking them to "imagine being an enslaved person."

In a letter addressed to Pam Northam and obtained by CBS News and WTVR, the 8th grade Senate Page says Northam's actions during a tour of the Executive Mansion's old slave quarters were "beyond inappropriate, especially considering recent events with the Governor."

"There are only three Black pages in the page class of 2019. When you went to hand out the cotton you handed it straight to another African American page, then you proceeded to hand it to me, I did not take it," the student wrote. "The other page took the cotton, but it made her very uncomfortable. I will give you the benefit of the doubt, because you gave it to some other pages. But you followed this up by asking: “Can you imagine being an enslaved person, and having to pick this all day?"

The student described Northam's comments and demeanor as unwelcoming, writing, "From the time we walked into the mansion to the time in the cottage
house, I did not receive a welcoming vibe. It was very testing to know I had to go somewhere, and I had no choice as to if I went, I had to be respectful, and be on my best behavior, even when the people in positions of power I was around were not doing the same."

The incident took place in Executive Mansion's Historic Kitchen, a cottage adjacent to the Governor's home that was historically used to house slaves

 “I regret that I upset anyone,"  Pam Northam said in a written statement.

"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."

A spokeswoman for Northam strongly denied that the first lady singled out black pages during the tours.

The controversy comes weeks after photos featuring blackface and Klansmen robes on Governor Northam's yearbook page surfaced across the internet, inciting continued calls for his resignation from Democratic leaders and advocacy groups across the country.   Northam has denied he was in the photo despite initially apologizing, and has vehemently ignored calls to resign, opting instead to dedicate the remainder of his term towards establishing racial equity.