Speak Your Piece | The Very Recent History of Blackface
While Virginia Governor Ralph Northam was posing in blackface, other parts of the South were also slogging through the swamp of Jim Crow. Suspicious murders, outrageous comments from law enforcement, and the notorious Jesse Helms-Jim Hunt Senate race are a few examples in North Carolina.
People from the rural South don’t need to see a photograph of a future governor in blackface to remember the legacy of Jim Crow. The reminders are everywhere.
The emergence of Ralph Northam’s yearbook picture simply reminds us how recently in our history these events took place and how many people are still living with the first-hand consequences of Jim Crow and its immediate aftermath. Northam’s picture was, after all, a reflection of the times, which were just two decades after the passage of the voting rights and civil rights acts.
I grew up in Robeson County, North Carolina, a rural county that during the 1980s was gripped by a growing drug trade, a string of unsolved murders, and the targeting of minority populations by the local police. In a 1994 interview with GQ Magazine (after the murder of Michael Jordan’s father in my home county), Sheriff Hubert Stone, who served as the county’s sheriff from 1978 until 1994, described the local minority population by saying:
Anytime you look down the street and you see a black and an Indian guy, you’ve got crime. You know you’re not supposed to look at things like that, but that’s the way it is … if they’re running together, something’s up. We always know when we spot a car and see ‘em — an Indian and a black — there’s gonna be some crime. We have to keep a firm hand on ‘em.
In 1986, Stone’s son Kevin, then a narcotics agent with the Sheriff’s Office, was implicated in the shooting of an unarmed Native American man.
In 1988, judicial candidate Julian Pierce, who was vying to be the first Native American Superior Court judge in North Carolina history, was found mysteriously murdered in his home. Sheriff Stone quickly “solved” the murder and his suspect, another Native American man, was found dead a couple of days later, in what Stone ruled a suicide. Stone described Pierce’s murder by ruling out a political move and saying, “’I think the people of Robeson County will understand that it’s just another murder.”
Throughout his campaign, Pierce had pledged to root out corruption in Robeson County government and had even told friends that he had evidence of that corruption. Pierce’s opponent, District Attorney Joe Freeman Britt, was the epitome of the political establishment in Robeson County. He was also emblematic of the racial bias that permeated its judicial system. In 1983, Britt famously prosecuted Leon Brown and Henry Lee McCollum, two African American teenagers, for the rape and murder of an 11-year–old girl. In that case, the DA’s office withheld physical evidence and built their case almost entirely on confessions that had been unfairly coerced. The two boys were sentenced to death. They would later be exonerated by DNA evidence and released in 2014.
This case was fairly typical for Britt, who was a rather prolific seeker of the death penalty, once even holding a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for most death penalty convictions. Britt’s tenure as district attorney would come to an end in 1988. While Pierce would win the election posthumously, Britt was allowed to take his seat on the bench.
The actions in Robeson County took place against the backdrop of the conflict between racially progressive forces and the remnants of Jim Crow. In 1984, racial firebrand Jesse Helms defended his Senate seat against popular, racially progressive governor Jim Hunt. Hunt, a native of rural Wilson County, North Carolina, had governed mostly as a progressive. He made improving education the centerpiece of his time as governor. Hunt’s progressivism stood in stark contrast to Helms’s politics, which often relied on race baiting. In late 1983, Helms had led a filibuster against the establishment of a holiday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Finding controversy was fairly easy for Helms; he was former television commentator who rose to fame with inflammatory rants on WRAL-TV and a polarizing figure who never won more than 56% of the vote in the state. Helms drew a lot of his strength in the state from its rural communities. During one of their debates, Hunt asked Helms, “my gracious, how far back do you want to take us?” He then added, “we’re a state making progress.” That November, the voters showed that progress is often not a straight line and sent Jesse Helms back to the Senate.
At Eastern Virginia Medical School, Ralph Northam and his classmates would also show that progress is not linear. After all, Northam was not the only person to pose in blackface in that yearbook. Northam, himself a product of the rural Eastern Shore of Virginia, and his classmates were behaving in ways that typified the environment in which they lived. While the South had begun the march out of the shadows of Jim Crow, its effects were still ever present in communities across its rural landscape in the 1980s.
Christopher Chavis is a native of Robeson County, North Carolina, and currently lives in Virginia. He is a contributing writer for Legal Ruralism, a blog that covers legal issues facing rural America. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College and a Juris Doctor from Michigan State University College of Law. He is also a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina.