Outgoing Gov. Northam claims he knows who was in that yearbook photo (but he won't say)

I missed this when it was published Sunday. At the very bottom of this Washington Post story about Ralph Northam’s time as the governor of Virginia, the Post returns to the blackface scandal that almost ended his political career.

As incredible as Northam’s political comeback has been, it still turns on a mystery: Who is in that photo?

Most people interviewed for this story said they believe Northam’s claim that it’s not him, but the picture and its origin have never been fully explained.

Two investigations — one conducted by Northam’s political action committee, the other by the medical school — failed to reach any conclusions. Today Northam says he is “99 percent sure” he knows the identity of the person in blackface.

“He’s been talked to,” Northam said in the interview. That person’s “name is very close to mine,” he said, meaning alphabetically, “and was also in that medical school class.”

Others familiar with the situation but speaking on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly said the person did not finish medical school and did not have their own page in the yearbook.

Northam said he thinks he knows who the person in the Klan robe was, too, but that they also would not cooperate with investigators. Neither would the person in charge of putting photos into the yearbook.

You probably don’t recall all the details of this story from back in 2019 but Northam initially apologized for the photo and then reversed course and said he wasn’t in the photo at all. He blamed that on confusion and surprise. But the story of who was in the photo has never been explained.

There was a brief moment where Northam’s medical school roommate said he was certain Northam wasn’t in the photo, which was taken during a 1984 Halloween Party, because he recalled Northam going to that party as a lawyer in a 3-piece suit.

There was also another photo showing Northam next to a man wearing plaid pants that looked like the ones worn in the blackface photo. Was this the person in that photo?

Both of those statements seemed potentially significant at the time. However, it’s worth noting that Northam’s own take on the Halloween party is that he didn’t attend it at all, which is at odds with the memory of his roommate. As for the man in the plaid pants, his name was Terry Smoot and the photo of him came from a high school yearbook. However he did not attend Eastern Virginia Medical School and was not at any Halloween Party held there. Northam’s claim that the person in blackface had a name similar to his would also seem to argue against Terry Smoot as the person in the picture.

Where Northam’s current story falls apart for me is when he claims that the person in the picture didn’t graduate and therefore didn’t get his own page in the yearbook. He also suggests the person who put the photos in the yearbook wouldn’t cooperate with the investigation. However, a member of the yearbook staff recalled that each student submitted the photos they wanted on their page in a sealed envelope:

Seniors at Eastern Virginia Medical School were allowed to submit up to three photographs in a sealed envelope to appear alongside a formal school picture on their personal pages in the 1984 yearbook, according to a former student who said he helped design most of those pages.

Designers would open the envelope and draw spots numbered one through three on a page to show where each photo should go, said Dr. William Elwood, who served on the Harbour’s staff the year a photo of a man in blackface standing beside a man in Ku Klux Klan garb appeared on Gov. Ralph Northam’s page…

“In my experience, the most likely thing is he submitted that picture. … Is it possible somebody could’ve switched the pictures after the fact? Yes. Is it probable? No.”

Northam’s half-page in the yearbook had his graduation photo plus three other photos including the blackface photo. The idea that someone included this photo on Northam’s page without his knowledge still seems unlikely.