Embattled Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) canceled his planned visit to Richmond’s Virginia Union University this week — the first stop on his so-called racial reconciliation tour — after being urged by students at the historically black college to reschedule.
Northam, who faced calls to resign earlier this month over a blackface scandal, had been scheduled to visit the university on Thursday to attend an event honoring the Richmond 34 — a group of Virginia Union students who were arrested in 1960 for holding a sit-in at a segregated department store.
But in a Monday letter addressed to the governor, Jamon Phenix, the president of the school’s student government, asked Northam to not attend, saying his appearance would “take away from the historical significance” of the commemoration event.
Phenix, writing on behalf of the student body, asked Northam to come instead at a later, unspecified date to take part in “a roundtable discussion and interview on ways we can all move Virginia forward.”
At least one member of the Richmond 34 took issue with Phenix’s letter.
Elizabeth Johnson Rice told The Washington Post that she was “appalled” by Phenix’s rebuffing of the governor and said he did not consult the Richmond 34 before contacting Northam.
Rice, who said she was representing the views of several other members of the Richmond 34, reportedly penned her own letter to Northam, asking him to attend the Virginia Union event despite the students’ misgivings.
In a Wednesday tweet, Northam said he would “respect the wishes” of Virginia Union’s student body and not visit the university this week. He said he would instead “host the Richmond 34 at the Executive Mansion on Friday to honor their bravery and courage.”
Northam’s “reconciliation tour” comes on the heels of allegations that the governor donned blackface on more than one occasion in his younger years.
The scandal began earlier this month when news broke that a photo of a man in blackface standing next to a person in a Ku Klux Klan hood had been featured on Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page.
Northam said neither person in the photo was him but said he did use shoe polish to darken his face to dress up as Michael Jackson for a dance contest that took place that same year.
Phenix told the Post that he had no regrets about his letter to Northam.
“This is not a lullaby for us. This is a battle cry. Students are upset about his presence here and, frankly, they have a right to be,” the student president said.
Despite facing pressure to resign, Northam has said that he is “not going anywhere.” Instead, the governor said he intends to use the time he has left in office to promote racial reconciliation and equity across the state.
His planned visit to Virginia Union this week was supposed to have launched this effort.
Recent polls show that while Northam’s approval rating has taken a plunge since his blackface scandal, many Virginians do not want to the governor to resign. Forty-eight percent of Virginia voters said Northam should stay in office, according to a new Quinnipiac University survey. Forty-two percent said Northam should step down.