Va. First Lady Criticized For "Racially Insensitive" Mansion Tour Pam Northam allegedly handed out cotton to two black Senate pages, asking them to imagine being enslaved cotton-pickers. The first lady says she was telling the "full story of the Executive Mansion."
NPR logo Virginia's First Lady Criticized For Racially 'Inappropriate' Mansion Tour

Virginia's First Lady Criticized For Racially 'Inappropriate' Mansion Tour

Virginia first lady Pam Northam is facing criticism after asking Senate pages to imagine being enslaved cotton-pickers during a tour of the Executive Mansion. Alex Edelman/Getty Images hide caption

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Virginia first lady Pam Northam is facing criticism after asking Senate pages to imagine being enslaved cotton-pickers during a tour of the Executive Mansion.

Alex Edelman/Getty Images

Updated at 8:18 p.m. ET

Editor's note: In an earlier version of this story, we named one of the students involved in the mansion tour and included a copy of her letter to Pam Northam. A representative for the student notified NPR that the student does not want to be named. We have removed the student's name from the story along with a tweet of the letter because the student is a minor and this is a sensitive subject.

Virginia's first lady, Pam Northam, has apologized after aggravating the recent racial scandals begun by her husband, the governor.

During a Feb. 21 tour of the Executive Mansion hosted by the Northams for the 2019 class of Senate pages, Pam Northam allegedly handed out raw cotton to two of the three black students present and asked them to imagine being an enslaved cotton-picker.

In a statement, Northam said she has given the same educational tour for 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," she wrote. "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."

The governor's office told the Washington Post that the first lady didn't target the black children present but rather just handed the cotton to whoever was nearby her so they could feel its raw texture and imagine how hard it was to handle all day.

Republican Sen. William M. Stanley Jr. of Franklin County told the Post that his daughter, who was present during the exchange, told him that Northam passed around the cotton to everyone.

"Can you imagine how offended these children felt, and also how powerless they felt in that moment to advocate for themselves?" wrote Virginia state employee Leah Dozier Walker, whose daughter was one of those offered cotton by the first lady, on Monday in an email to the office of Gov. Ralph Northam. "Why would ANYONE ask children to imagine something like that, let alone African-American Children?"

Walker, who oversees the Office of Equity and Community Engagement at the state Education Department, says she was "outraged" after her eighth-grade daughter told her about the incident, which took place in a cottage that had formerly served as a kitchen.

"The Governor and Mrs. Northam have asked the residents of the Commonwealth to forgive them for their racially insensitive past actions," wrote Walker. "But the actions of Mrs. Northam, just last week, 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."

Walker's daughter penned a letter to Pam Northam, included in her mother's email to lawmakers, describing her actions as "beyond inappropriate, especially considering recent events" involving the governor.

Ralph Northam has been under scrutiny since a racist image from his medical school yearbook page surfaced in early February. Since then, the governor has been resisting calls to resign and has been trying to redeem himself in the eyes of his constituents. This is, however, the first time that the racial scandal in Virginia has expanded to include the first lady.

In her response to the criticism surrounding the incident, Pam Northam defended her actions as part of an "educational tour ... with the intention of illustrating a painful period of Virginia history."

Here is Pam Northam's full 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."

Hafsa Quraishi is an intern on the National Desk. Sarah McCammon contributed to this report.