Virginia first lady Pam Northam has apologized after handing out cotton to a group of Black students during a tour of the governor’s mansion earlier this month.
The apology comes after a state employee, whose eighth-grade daughter and another African-American student on the tour, complained about the incident to lawmakers and Gov. Ralph Northam‘s office, according to The Washington Post.
The first lady reportedly passed out raw cotton while showing students a cottage adjacent to the residence that once served as a kitchen, telling them to imagine being enslaved and having to pick the crop.
“I regret that I’ve upset anyone,” Pam Northam said in a statement Wednesday, explaining she was only trying to ensure the stories of the enslaved African-Americans who worked in the mansion’s kitchen were properly told. “I’m 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 incident is the latest racial controversy involving the upper echelons of Virginia’s state government. Last month, Gov. Ralph Northam was called to the carpet over a photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page showing someone in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan attire. The governor, who confessed to wearing blackface on a different occasion, has resisted calls to step down and has instead promised to stay and help “heal” Old Dominion.
State worker Leah Dozier Walker is the mom who complained about the cotton-picking incident, writing in a Feb. 25 letter that the first lady’s actions “do not lead me to believe that this Governor’s office has taken seriously the harm and hurt they have caused African Americans in Virginia or that they are deserving of our forgiveness.”
Mrs. Walker, who oversees the Office of Equity and Community Engagement at the state Education Department, wrote that during the Feb. 21 incident, Pam Northam singled out the Black students when handing out cotton and describing the horrors of slavery.
“Mrs. Northam then 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,” she added. “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’d ask such an insensitive question.”
The governor’s office, along with two state senators whose children attended the tour, denied this however, saying the first lady handed the cotton to all of the students.
“The first lady’s intent was to show the horrors of slavery and to make sure that everyone felt the pain they felt in some small measure,” Sen. William M. Stanley Jr. (R-Franklin), whose daughter was also on the tour, told The Washington Post. He said his wife got the same tour from Pam Northam and found it “poignant.”
Walker’s daughter didn’t see it that way, however. The young girl said she didn’t take the cotton that was handed to her, but her friend did, adding that the incident “made her very uncomfortable.”
“I will give you the benefit of the doubt, because you gave it to some other pages,” she wrote in a letter to Pam Northam. “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.”