Virginias first lady in cotton race row

Pam Northam, wife of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, listens as he speaks to reportersImage copyright
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Pam Northam, wife of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, has apologised for upsetting the family

Virginia’s first lady has apologised after being accused of handing African-American children cotton during a historic tour of the governor’s home.

A government worker claimed Pam Northam asked the young students to imagine they were picking the cotton as slaves.

The first lady’s office told the BBC she has reached out to the family to apologise without success and said she did not single anyone out at the event.

The row comes as the governor still faces backlash for using blackface.

The incident involving Virginia’s first lady reportedly took place in the mansion’s kitchen during a historic tour for Senate pages.

Leah Dozier Walker, the director of the Office of Equity and Community Engagement for Virginia’s education department, accused Mrs Northam of racial insensitivity in a letter to lawmakers on 25 February, the Washington Post reported.

Ms Walker wrote that Mrs Northam had handed her daughter and two other African-American pages cotton and asked “if they could imagine what it must have been like to pick cotton all day”.

She said her daughter did not accept the cotton, and wrote her own letter to the first lady, saying “it made her very uncomfortable”.

“The actions of Mrs Northam, just last week, do not lead me to believe that this Governor’s office has taken seriously the harm and hurt they have caused African-Americans in Virginia or that they are deserving of our forgiveness,” Ms Walker wrote.

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Protesters had rallied outside the governor’s mansion following the blackface controversy, calling for Mr Northam’s resignation

The first lady apologised in a statement, saying: “I regret that I have upset anyone”.

She added that she has been committed to sharing the full history of the mansion and that it “does a disservice to Virginians to omit the stories of the enslaved people who lived and worked there”.

“I am still committed to chronicling the important history of the Historic Kitchen, and will continue to engage historians and experts on the best way to do so in the future.”

Spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky told the BBC the first lady had invited all the children to touch the agricultural products and artefacts “as part of an educational tour”.

Virginia’s leadership has been embroiled in several controversies this year – which began when a photo emerged of Governor Ralph Northam’s college yearbook page showing two people in blackface and a KKK outfit.

Mr Northam first apologised for the photo, then backtracked and claimed he was not in the picture – but acknowledged he had once worn blackface while dressing up as Michael Jackson.

Despite calls for his immediate resignation, the governor is still working to reconcile with constituents.

The state’s attorney general also admitted to using blackface in college.

The lieutenant governor has been accused of sexual assault by two women.

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