Report: No conclusive info on people in governor's blackface yearbook photo

NORFOLK, Va. (WDBJ7) - Wednesday morning, Virginia Eastern Medical School released a report investigating the identities of the two people who appeared in the racist picture found in Governor Ralph Northam's medical school yearbook.

According to EVMS, within 48 hours of the picture's appearance on an online site, the McGuireWoods law firm was hired and tasked with conducting an independent investigation into all EVMS yearbooks, including the 1984 yearbook in which the blackface photograph appears on Northam's personal page. The mandate also included examining diversity and inclusion at the school from its inception to the present day.

The firm said Wednesday that after completing its independent investigation, they could not determine the identity of either of the people in the picture.

The 35-year-old picture shows two people on Northam's yearbook page, one appearing in blackface, the other appearing in a Ku Klux Klan-robed uniform and hood. The 55-page report acknowledges that the Governor has made inconsistent statements about the photo.

WDBJ7 caught up with Northam on Wednesday morning in Lexington where he was involved in a prescheduled tour of a local business. When asked about the report, Northam said he hadn't yet read the report.

"Well I suspect it's been a thorough investigation, I have actually participated in the investigation," he said. "I've been present for the questioning that they have asked me of, I haven't had a chance to read it, but I plan to go back to Richmond, look at it, and like I said, we'll prepare a statement that will be available this afternoon."

The report goes on to state that no one the firm interviewed said from personal knowledge that Northam is in the picture, and that no one with knowledge has come forward to report anything about the picture.

The firm stated that on February 2, Northam said publicly that he had not seen the picture before. McGuireWoods tried to find out if the picture had been published on the page accidentally, but could not find evidence to support nor deny that. They also could not find out its origin.

Investigators wrote in the report, "Our inquiry in this regard was restricted by the passage of time and the dearth of contemporaneous documentation." It also states, "We acknowledge there is scant information on this subject 35 years after the fact. Memories fade over such a lengthy time period and we were unable to contact some individuals who may have relevant knowledge."

The report made note of other findings throughout the investigation which included an acknowledgement that from 1976 to 2013, there was almost no oversight or censorship over yearbook photos or content by EVMS administration.

The firm states they reviewed the contents of the yearbooks in detail, noting that they have identified a number of pictures depicting blackface, including the one appearing on the Governor's page. A press release EVMS published on the subject on the school's website specifically points out there were a total of 10 pictures depicting blackface in all EVMS yearbooks.

The report also notes, "The yearbooks repeatedly contained other content that could be offensive to women, minorities, certain ethnic groups, and others."

That content and similar themes, it notes, recurred over much of the time period in which the yearbooks were published, but not as frequently in later years.

On the note of diversity and inclusion, the summary of the report notes that there was no evidence to indicate that EVMS excluded students. That said, some people they talked to indicated that there was often not enough infrastructure or funding at the school to fully support past diversity efforts. That support, however, was reported by witnesses to have improved over the last five to 10 years.

In fact, nine former and current students interviewed as part of the investigation reported experiencing what they perceived as "instances of racial insensitivity from other classmates, faculty, or during clinical rotations."

The school, McGuireWoods writes, has taken "meaningful steps" to improve and provide consistent support for diversity and inclusion in the last five to ten years.

In the online press release published by EVMS, President and Provost Dr. Richard Homan said that the publication of the insensitive pictures was a “failure of administrative oversight on the part of EVMS."

Dr. Homan went on to say, “Their publication was hurtful, particularly to the African-American community and to our campus community,” Dr. Homan said. “It should never have happened.”

The press release on the EVMS website notes that Dr. Homan also tapped local leaders to form a Community Advisory Board for Diversity and Inclusion, which will focus on current culture at the school. The CABDI will complete a report and make recommendations for the future. That is expected to be done by this fall.

McGuireWoods said it will, if asked, provide recommendations made by those interviewed.

You can read the full 55-page report which is attached to this article in PDF form.

The release by EVMS can be found here.