The tour guide handed raw, prickly cotton to some young black students who were part of a group visiting the oldest operating governor’s mansion in the country, one that was built with slave labor. She asked them to imagine what it would be like to be a slave picking the crop.
What made the request only more shocking, a mother of one of the children said, was who was asking it: Pam Northam, the wife of Ralph S. Northam, the embattled governor of Virginia, who is trying to repair his relationship with African-Americans after a scandal over a racist yearbook photo and an admission of wearing blackface.
The students, aged 13 and 14, were on the tour last Thursday as part of a get-together for State Senate pages as the legislative session closes. The governor’s office said that Ms. Northam did not single out the black students, but handed the cotton to those nearest to her so that they could pass it around and everyone could feel the sharpness of the stems and leaves, and consider handling the rough materials all day, every day. It is part of her standard procedure, and she had done the same with white visitors.
“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,” Ms. Northam said in a statement. “I regret that I have upset anyone.”
But in a letter sent this week to Virginia lawmakers and the governor’s office, Leah Dozier Walker, the mother of one of the black pages, wrote, “I cannot for the life of me understand why the first lady would single out the African-American pages for this — or — why she would ask them such an insensitive question.”
The episode came after a damaging month for the Northams and the Democratic leadership of Virginia. Both Mr. Northam and the state’s attorney general, Mark Herring, who are white, recently admitted that they wore blackface in their youth.
At a news conference in early February, it was Ms. Northam who quietly said “inappropriate circumstances” when her husband looked like he would demonstrate Michael Jackson’s moonwalk, which he said he once did in a dance contest while wearing shoe polish to darken his face.
Mr. Northam has vowed to devote the next three years of his term to racial equity. The latest tear in the Northams’ relationship with black Virginians came when Ms. Northam, a former middle school teacher, was taking groups of students to slave quarters on the mansion’s grounds that had once been a kitchen. She held up cotton and tobacco and described the enslaved workers who picked the crops to a group of about 20 children, according to Ms. Walker’s letter. About 100 senate pages visited that day.
Ms. Walker, who is the director of equity and engagement at the state Education Department, said that her 14-year-old daughter and the other two black students were the only African-American children in the program.
“My only interest is in protecting my child and ensuring that the pain she and others have endured does not linger and discourage,” Ms. Walker said on Thursday. “I am proud of my daughter’s courage, strength, and persistence.”
Ms. Walker’s daughter also wrote to Ms. Northam directly, saying that though she never touched the cotton, her friends did so and that “it made her very uncomfortable.”
“I will give you the benefit of the doubt, because you gave it to some other pages,” the girl wrote. “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.”
Another student told her father, a Republican state senator, that Ms. Northam handed the cotton around as a “hands-on experience,” according to The Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Ms. Walker was not satisfied with Ms. Northam’s explanation this week. “I also remain extremely disappointed in official responses that are as tone deaf and insensitive as the initial bad act,” she said.
Ms. Northam said she was trying to tell the story of the slaves who worked at the governor’s mansion. And there has been a renewed focus at some organizations to emphasize the lives and the voices of the oppressed.
Elsewhere in Virginia, the homes of slaves who toiled on President James Madison’s estate were recently rebuilt to highlight the circumstances of their lives. The group that runs the estate worked with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and descendants of those slaves to tell their ancestral stories.
“History is universal, but it is also deeply personal,” said Kat Imhoff, president and chief executive officer of James Madison’s Montpelier. “The first lady’s actions, while I don’t think were intentionally malicious, are indicative of an urgent need for education and dialogue around race, history, and culture at all levels of American society.”
Ms. Imhoff said that it was important for leaders to engage in broader conversations about the complete history of the United States, and not to overlook the unsavory aspects.
“It’s imperative that we don’t write off moments like these as merely tone deaf, and move on,” she said, “because without proper attention they perpetuate dangerous and harmful stereotypes and prejudices.”