President Jim Ryan sent an email to the University community Sunday morning addressing the photograph on Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D-Va.) 1984 medical school yearbook page, depicting one person dressed in blackface and another as a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
In his statement, Ryan said the photo was “shocking and racist, no matter who was in it.”
Northam initially apologized for appearing in the photo. "I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now,” he said.
Later, at a press conference Saturday, Northam denied appearing in the photo but did admit to wearing blackface for a dance contest in 1984 — the same year the racist yearbook photo was published — in order to look more like Michael Jackson.
"I believe now and then that I am not either of the people in this photo," Northam said in the press conference. "This was not me in that picture. That was not Ralph Northam."
Ryan also commented on the photograph’s effects on the University community.
“This community knows all too well the pain and hurt that can come from reopening wounds, many of which remain to be fully healed,” Ryan said. “It is clear that this photo has deepened those wounds for many people in our community, the Commonwealth, and beyond, and it is equally clear that the photo is antithetical to the values of our community.”
The University was built by enslaved laborers for over 50 years, and Thomas Jefferson himself owned more than 600 slaves in his lifetime. During her time at the University, President Teresa Sullivan created a commission dedicated to the historical relationship between slavery and the University — part of that commission was to build the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, which began construction earlier this year.
Since its founding, the University has had a slew of racist incidents with legacies still prevalent today. For example, the namesake of Corks & Curls — U.Va’s official yearbook — is, according to The Washington Post, “minstrel slang for the burned cork used to blacken faces and the curly Afro wigs that were signature costume pieces.”
According to the Corks & Curls website, when the name was suggested, they held a contest to “rationalize” the name. A student named Leander Fogg won with his explanation, allegedly saying that “cork” represents an “unprepared student who was called upon in class but who remained silent, like a corked-up bottle.” “Curl”, according to Fogg, refers to “a student who performed well in class and who, when patted on his head by his professor, ‘curleth his tail for delight thereat.’”
The University has also had instances of students dressing up in blackface. In Nov. 2002, Kappa Alpha fraternity was suspended by both the Inter-Fraternity Council and their national headquarters after they threw a party, along with Zeta Psi fraternity, where three students showed up in blackface. Two days after the incident, Kappa Alpha’s national headquarters lifted their suspension over the U.Va chapter.
Both University Democrats and College Republicans at U.Va. called for Northam’s resignation following the emergence of the photograph of Northam in what the University Democrats described in their statement as “an obvious display of anti-Black racism.”
Ryan went on to describe Northam as a “decent and kind man, with an admirable record of service to our Commonwealth and the nation” but also added that leadership is contingent on the “trust and support of the people [a leader] represents.”
Northam released a video Friday evening in response to the circulating photograph and said “I accept responsibility for my past actions, and I am ready to do the hard work of regaining your trust.”
“If that trust is lost, for whatever reason, it is exceedingly difficult to continue to lead,” Ryan said. “It seems we have reached that point.”
Ryan ended his statement highlighting the “need to continue the conversations” about the Commonwealth’s past.