Officials, residents defend Va. first lady after allegations she gave black students cotton during mansion tour

Officials, residents defend Va. first lady after allegations she gave black students cotton during mansion tour
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Several Virginia state officials and residents defended Virginia first lady Pam Northam against allegations she gave black students cotton at a tour of the governor's mansion focused on slavery.

The officials told The Washington Post that Northam did not focus on black students during the tours, contradicting allegations that African-Americans were singled out when the first lady was handing out raw cotton.

“Nobody was singled out,” said state Sen. Chap Petersen (D), whose teenage son took one of the tours.

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A Virginia state employee whose daughter visited the mansion initially claimed earlier this week that Northam specifically approached three black students in a group of 20 to hand them cotton. 

About 100 state legislative pages descended on the governor’s mansion on Feb. 21 for a reception. Northam handed out tobacco leaves and raw cotton bolls to each group, asking students to imagine the difficulty slaves had dealing with the rough products every day. 

“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,” Leah Dozier Walker, director of the state education department's Office of Equity and Community Engagement, wrote to lawmakers and the governor after one tour.

“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 would ask them such an insensitive question.”

When Northam’s office pushed back on the assertion, Walker doubled down.

“I do not expect for non black students or parents to understand the pain and suffering African Americans associate with cotton — or of being asked to relive the horrors associated with the racist institution of American slavery — even in a historical context,” she wrote in an email Friday night. 

The story sparked national attention, with many media outlets wrapping it into the scandal engulfing Richmond as Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and state Attorney General Mark Herring (D) defend themselves after they revealed they wore blackface in the 1980s.

Petersen said he pushed his son for details after the story came out.

“ ‘Did the first lady pass you out cotton balls?’ ” Petersen remembered asking him. “He explained it, ‘Everybody touched it. She made a point that it had prickers.’ ‘Were any people singled out?’ He said, ‘That did not happen.’ He could not have been more adamant.” 

Ten pages in total, directly or through parents, told the Post that the first lady did not pay special attention to the black students. 

“She didn’t pick out anything or anybody,” Celina Harris, 13, told the Post. 

“When it came to the cotton part, she handed it to the nearest page and passed it around the room to everybody, and explained that the slaves had to pick cotton, and it was difficult for them because it was sharp.”

“I have also spoken to witnesses who were present and the *cotton situation* during the Page Governor’s Mansion tours did not happen at all the way it’s been portrayed in the press,” state Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D) added in a Facebook post.