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Virginia first lady accused of racial insensitivity by black teenager

Fallout from Virginia blackface scandal

Virginia First Lady Pamela Northam distributed pieces of cotton to young legislative pages and discussed how slaves once picked cotton during a meeting at the governor's mansion in Richmond last week, according to a young participant who wrote to the first lady to tell her the interaction was "beyond inappropriate."

On Feb. 21, Virginia's first couple, Gov. Ralph Northam and Pamela Northam, met with the teenage pages just days before the legislative session concluded, according to a letter sent by one of the pages and multiple adults familiar with the matter. They briefly met with the governor and posed for photographs before being led out to the mansion's gardens by the first lady.

From there, they entered a cottage next to the garden that used to serve as a kitchen, workspace and home for slaves who worked at the mansion. The first lady discussed with the children its historical significance, according to the letter sent by the page to Virginia's first lady.

"When in the cottage house you were speaking about cotton, and how the slaves had to pick it," the letter says. "There are only three Black pages in the page class of 2019. When you went to hand out the cotton you handed it straight to another African American page, then you proceeded to hand it to me, I did not take it. The other page took the cotton, but it made her very uncomfortable. I will give you the benefit of the doubt, because you gave it to some other pages.

But you followed this up by asking: 'Can you imagine being an enslaved person, and having to pick this all day?'"

Multiple people confirmed that three of the 39 Virginia Senate Pages in the class of 2019 are black.

"The comments and just the way you carried yourself during this time was beyond inappropriate, especially considering recent events with the Governor," wrote the young page, whose name is being withheld because the page is a minor. "From the time we walked into the mansion to the time in the cottage house, I did not receive a welcoming vibe."

"I hope this was a learning experience for everyone involved, and that no one else is subjected to this. I hope to hear back from you soon!" the letter writer concluded.  

Pamela Northam, a former elementary school teacher and high school biology teacher, said in a statement to CBS News that she has given "the same educational tour to Executive Mansion visitors over the last few months and used a variety of artifacts and agricultural crops." Her intent, she said, was to illustrate "a painful period of Virginia history."

She explained that she began last year to tell the "full story" of the governor's mansion, including the Historic Kitchen. "I believe it does a disservice to Virginians to omit the stories of the enslaved people who lived and worked there — that's why I have been engaged in an effort to thoughtfully and honestly share this important story since I arrived in Richmond," she wrote.

"I regret that I have upset anyone," she wrote. She went on to say that she's still committed to chronicling the history of the Historic Kitchen, and "will continue to engage historians and experts on the best way to do so in the future."

A spokeswoman for Northam strongly denied that the first lady singled out black pages during the tours.

"I can dispute that flatly," said Ofirah Yheskel, communications director for Gov. Northam who said she has spoken extensively with the first lady about the moment in question ever since her office learned about the accusation.

"I don't think that's fair or accurate," Yheskel added.

But the young page's parent, Leah Walker, a state Education Deparment employee, said she believes her daughter.

"I am proud of my daughter standing up for herself and speaking out," Walker said.

After learning about the interaction and speaking about it with friends and the parents of some other pages in recent days, Walker said she sent the first lady's office her daughter's letter in an email this week. On Wednesday when Walker arrived at her office, there was a handwritten note from the first lady on her desk.

"It didn't include an apology," Walker said — who quickly noted that the first lady has since apologized in her public statement.

Gov. Northam has been dealing with his own controversy, resisting calls to step down after a racist photo on his medical school yearbook surfaced earlier this month and he admitted to darkening his face on a single occasion in 1984. In the weeks since, the first couple has cancelled appearances in Virginia and Washington after the governor rescinded an apology and tried explaining how he hoped to determine how the photo ended up on his yearbook page.

During his news conference on Feb. 2, Gov. Northam referenced several times how he had darkened his face for a dance competition where he performed Michael Jackson's famous moonwalk dance. Later, the first lady - standing by the governor's side -stopped her husband from performing the dance after a reporter inquired if he still could.

"Inappropriate circumstances," she whispered to him.

"My wife says inappropriate circumstances," the governor told reporters.