RICHMOND, Va. (FOX 5 DC) - FOX 5 gained an exclusive look inside the Virginia Executive Mansion Tuesday amid controversy surrounding Governor Ralph Northam and his wife, first lady Pam Northam, who reports say gave cotton to young African American students visiting the executive housing quarters last month. The scandal is prompting the first lady to ask for forgiveness as calls continue for her husband to resign.
The private tour started on time and lasted about 40 minutes. There are two tours a day, and surprisingly, we were the only ones in attendance at the Executive Mansion, which has been thrust into the national spotlight after an eighth grade African American girl told her mother the first lady gave her and her classmate raw cotton.
On our private tour, the guide did not hand out cotton, though she did ask for us to imagine living in the mansion. It’s along the same premise first lady Pam Northam says led to her giving young students, including African American students, raw, prickly cotton two weeks ago. On that tour, she reportedly told them to imagine what it would be like to be a slave, picking the crop. The incident was said to have taken place in the mansion’s historic kitchen.
The encounter sparked outrage as the first lady’s husband, Gov. Northam, is hoping to rebuild his relationship with the African American community as the fallout continues over a racist yearbook photo and then his admission, then retraction, to wearing blackface.
Amid the controversy surrounding the governor and his wife, a portrait showing Civil Rights attorney Oliver Hill hangs in the mansion’s living room, and a painting of Barbara Johns, who led the fight for desegregation in schools, was prominently placed in the dining area.
The controversial encounter between first lady Pam Northam and students apparently took place in the historic kitchen which is below what was once servants’ likely slave quarters and was not open to our public tour.
We’re told spring and summer are the busiest touring seasons with about 25 guides rotating tours on the mansion’s main level.
The Northam family lives upstairs and administrative offices are downstairs. They were not home during our tour.
On Tuesday afternoon, the first lady’s staff stood by Pam Northam’s original statement —
“It does a disservice to Virginians to omit the stories of the enslaved people who lived and work there — that’s why I have been engaged in an effort to thoughtfully and honestly share this important story since I arrived in Richmond.”
Pam Northam and at least one other child’s parent say the first lady did not single out African American students, rather handing out the cotton to the whole group. Even so, after going on a tour here, it doesn’t appear there would be any reason or reference point to give cotton to attendees.