A scandal over old college photographs featuring blackface and KKK robes has thrust Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam into the national spotlight.
Northam, a Democrat, has faced pressure from both Republicans and his own party to resign over these photos, but he has so far declined to do so.
Until this controversy bubbled up on Friday, Northam’s history was relatively low key on the path to becoming a public servant.
Northam grew up on Virginia’s rural Eastern Shore, where its two counties have less than a combined 45,000 residents. His father was a judge.
He became a doctor and served in the U.S. Army before becoming a state delegate, then was elected lieutenant governor in 2013 and governor in 2017.
Despite being the commonwealth’s top official, Northam was often seen returning to the Eastern Shore.
Before news broke about a racist yearbook photograph on the page bearing Northam’s name, the Virginia governor came home to Accomack County to contribute his memories of a local blacksmith.
Northam said of the African-American man he used to watch fix tools, tractors, bicycles and other items his family brought into the blacksmith shop:
“Growing up, the way we were raised, my brother and I, we didn’t see color — and I don’t think he saw color either. He just treated everybody as human beings. I think that’s a lesson that everybody needs to hear.”
Northam’s Eastern Shore roots
Northam is only the second Virginia governor to hail from the Eastern Shore of Virginia — two counties at the narrow southernmost tip of the Delmarva Peninsula. The first governor from the Eastern Shore was Henry A. Wise, elected in 1855.
The area is perhaps best known to the outside world for its Chincoteague ponies and rocket launches from NASA Wallops Flight Facility.
Northam also became the first lieutenant governor from the Eastern Shore, after winning the November 2013 election.
The same weekend he recorded his recollections about Outlaw, Northam celebrated the Martin Luther King Jr. Day at an Eastern Shore church whose congregation King himself addressed nearly 70 years ago — and where Northam is now a member.
First Baptist Church in Capeville was founded as an African-American congregation in the19th century. The mixed congregation today attracts visitors from as far as Virginia Beach for worship.
Northam counts the church’s pastor, the Rev. Kelvin Jones, as a mentor. It was Jones who gave the invocation at Northam’s inauguration.
Northam spoke at the Sunday celebration service at the church on Jan.20.
“We may have all come on different ships but we’re in the same boat now,” Northam quoted King as saying, adding “We have made great progress, but we have more work to do to make sure we are a country where everyone is treated successfully.”
Northam continued: “There are many things that we’re trying to do in Virginia to be inclusive and to really embrace diversity and to embrace equality … We must continue to raise our voices that we do not condone hatred or bigotry in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
Northam told the congregation about being a student during school desegregation on the Eastern Shore in 1971. He was in sixth grade at the time.
While many white families chose to send their children to private school, Northam’s parents kept their sons in the public schools.
Eastern Shore of Virginia youth
Northam grew up on a small farm outside Onancock, a town of around 1,200.
He graduated from Onancock High School in 1977. Northam’s father is retired Circuit Judge Wescott B. Northam.
Northam was a good student and as a teenager always held down a job, his father recalled in previous interviews — including as a stock boy at the Meatland grocery store, driving a tractor on a farm, and as a boat mate.
During college, he took a summer job as a boat captain, taking workers back and forth from Onancock to Tangier.
After high school, Northam attended Virginia Military Institute, where he was a battalion commander his senior year and served as president of the honor court.
He was one of the first VMI graduates accepted into Eastern Virginia Medical School, from which he graduated in 1984.
It was in his yearbook from Eastern Virginia Medical School where a racist image, showing one man in blackface and another person wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe, was found on a page bearing his name and likeness.
While he initially apologized for the photo, Northam on Saturday claimed he’d never seen the yearbook page before.
He later served eight years active duty in the U.S. Army, including treating wounded soldiers at a hospital in Germany during Operation Desert Storm.
More recently, Northam has worked as a pediatric neurologist in Norfolk.
Northam became the 40th lieutenant governor of Virginia after having twice been elected to the state Senate representing the 6th Senate District.
In the governor’s race in 2017, Northam won over Ed Gillespie by a wide margin, garnering nearly 54 percent of the vote statewide.
An election theme of ‘A moral compass’
In Northam’s inaugural address, his theme was the need to follow a moral compass.
Northam’s speech focused on the importance of having a compass — both literally, in his experiences boating on the Chesapeake Bay, and metaphorically, meaning a sense of moral uprightness.
He credited his father and his mother, Nancy Shearer Northam, who died in 2009, with instilling in him the values that still guide him.
Of his mother, a nurse who also volunteered with hospice and taught children who were learning English as a second language to read, Northam said, “She taught me that, no matter who we are or where we come from, we are all equal in the beginning — and in the end.”
Still, Northam said the greatest lesson he learned from his parents he learned by watching how they conducted themselves in the community.
“Their humble and steady service to the people around them taught me what strength looks like. It taught me that you don’t have to be loud to lead,” he said.