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Cotton boll becomes pressure point during tour with Mrs. Northam

3/8/2019, noon
Virginia First Lady Pam Northam met privately Saturday with a mother and daughter to discuss their concerns that went viral ...
Gov. and First Lady Northam Photo by Sandra Sellars

Virginia First Lady Pam Northam met privately Saturday with a mother and daughter to discuss their concerns that went viral about Mrs. Northam’s efforts to offer Executive Mansion visitors insight into the hardships enslaved people had endured.

The meeting was unannounced, and neither Mrs. Northam nor Leah Walker and her daughter, Alexandra, an eighth-grader who served as a Senate page during the General Assembly session, issued any statements regarding the discussion about the way the first lady handed out samples of raw cotton during a Feb. 21 tour for pages of the mansion and the restored exterior kitchen of the house in Capitol Square.

Still, the meeting may have ended the flap that drew international interest and fresh attention to Gov. Ralph S. Northam’s troubles over his use of blackface in 1984.

The Virginia NAACP, among others, used the uproar to renew the call for the governor to resign. The Rev. Kevin Chandler, state NAACP president, stated that the “recent statements and actions of First Lady Pam Northam further demonstrate the troubling insensitivity and tone deaf response to Virginia’s past involvement in and acceptance of slavery and its malignant effects.”

The uproar began when Mrs. Northam held the traditional tour of the Governor’s Mansion for about a 100 teens who served as pages in during the 2019 General Assembly session that was about to adjourn. The youths broke into several smaller groups for the tour.

Among other things, Mrs. Northam, a former elementary and high school teacher and advocate for early childhood education, stopped in the cottage on the grounds outside the mansion that once was the kitchen used by enslaved African-American cooks and workers to serve past governors. The enslaved also slept there.

As described in multiple reports, Mrs. Northam handed a cotton boll to the visitors and asked them to imagine what it would be like to work all day picking cotton.

Alexandra, who was one of three African-Americans in her smaller tour group, found Mrs. Northam’s words and actions upsetting and did not take the cotton boll from the first lady.

However, Alexandra wrote a letter to Mrs. Northam afterwards, describing the show-and-tell as “beyond inappropriate, especially considering recent events” involving the governor.

The 14-year-old primarily was concerned that Mrs. Northam appeared to focus on her and the other two African-Americans when she handed out the cotton boll. While Alexandra declined to take it from Mrs. Northam, she said one of her friends did and “it made her very uncomfortable.”

“I will give you the benefit of the doubt because you gave it to some other pages,” Alexandra wrote, “but you followed 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.”

Alexandra’s mother then wrote a scathing email, attached her daughter’s letter, and sent it to state lawmakers and the governor’s office with a request that it be given to Mrs. Northam, according to a spokesperson for Mrs. Walker, who has not responded to a request for an interview.