Eastern Virginia Medical School officials and alumni react to racist yearbook photo

Laura Peters

STAUNTON, Va. – Eastern Virginia Medical School alumni began defending their school – and in some cases the photo from the 1984 yearbook page of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam that showed a man in blackface and another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood.

On Friday the governor apologized for being in the photo, but on Saturday he said he wouldn't resign and that he doesn't believe it is him in the photo, as he initially thought.

The Norfolk school, which has over 10,000 alumni, was founded in 1973. 

Richard V. Homan, the school's president, provost and dean of the school of medicine, issued a statement Saturday saying the school cannot change the events of the past but can use it as a reminder of the "importance of our ongoing work toward diversity and inclusion."

"We share the outrage, alarm and sadness voiced by our alumni, the press and many on social media regarding the picture published in the 1984 student yearbook," he said in the statement. "The picture is shockingly abhorrent and absolutely antithetical to the principles, morals and values we hold and espouse of our educational and research institution and our professions. Racism and discrimination in any form is not acceptable."

More: 'I am not the person in that photo': Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam denies he was in racist image

The statement was posted on the medical school's website and its Facebook page. Many alumni reacting to the news on the Facebook post said the school shouldn't be judged on this incident.

"I am a person of color. Approximately 10 percent of my class were minorities," read a comment from an account credited to Naved Jafri, reportedly a 1996 graduate.

"There was never a culture of racism or discrimination based on race while I attended, nor anything like this in our yearbooks.

"The picture being discussed is a stain on our school but doesn’t represent the vast majority of excellent, caring, health professionals that have graduated from there and continue to serve the community. Please don’t judge us all based on this picture."

Ken Fink, a 1982 graduate, apparently posted on the same thread, asking where everyone's sense of humor was.

It wasn't possible Saturday night to independently confirm the post was from Fink.

"I’d like to know where everyone’s sense of humor has gone. As medical students at EVMS in the 80’s, humor was encouraged as a self preserving mechanism as we struggled thorough the difficulty of learning medicine," Fink posted under Petra Fink's Facebook, his wife's account.

"We went to Halloween parties and made fun of ourselves. The picture depicts the absurdity of racism, exemplifying that we can all get along after all, and that the medical world recognizes human equality. It’s too bad the public can’t interpret it this way."

Others on the thread responded, saying blackface and dressing up as a member of the Klan is unacceptable.

"Black face is never acceptable. The KKK is never acceptable. The fact that we still have events like the Charlottesville rally attended to by still very active racist hate groups makes it extremely unfunny," an account for Christopher Venantius posted. "The only absurd thing about racism is that it still evidently exists, even in the medical profession."

This is not the only photo featuring someone in blackface in the 1984 yearbook. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, there are several others. 

According to the article, on the page opposite Northam's there's a photo of three men, two of whom appear to be in blackface. There is one other photo with a man in blackface on a different page of the same yearbook, the article said.

"You have always known that page existed. And you knew it was there when he ran for office. You likely kept it a secret to protect him and yourselves," an account credited to Sharnae Diane commented on the Facebook post. "The time to make amends was before it became public. Shame on you!!! I feel sorry for all the good people who graduated from your institution that can no longer hang their diplomas proudly!"

Full statement from EVMS President Richard V. Homan:

"We share the outrage, alarm and sadness voiced by our alumni, the press and many on social media regarding the picture published in the 1984 student yearbook. The picture is shockingly abhorrent and absolutely antithetical to the principles, morals and values we hold and espouse of our educational and research institution and our professions. Racism and discrimination in any form is not acceptable.

We cannot change the events of the past, but we can use these events as reminders of the importance of our ongoing work toward diversity and inclusion. This is a time for self-reflection and humility. On behalf of our beloved EVMS, I sincerely apologize for the past transgressions of your trust. We recognize the need to address and rectify any issues of racism and discrimination that arise, at any point — and will continue a long tradition of action to build a strong culture of diversity and inclusion.

Therefore, I shall convene an urgent meeting of members of our senior leadership and members of our Boards to address this issue holistically for EVMS. We will, of course, include students, residents, faculty, staff, and alumni in this work.

It has been said that those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it. We must learn from this and will come together to support and live the values and principles we hold so dear. We remain steadfast in reassuring our community that EVMS is absolutely committed to supporting and creating a culture of diversity, inclusion and social equality. We continue to affirm the tenets of our professions and our mission to recruit, educate and train a culturally competent healthcare workforce that reflects the demography of our nation and the patients we serve.

Thank you for your tireless work to make EVMS and the communities we serve a better and healthier place. In my seven years at EVMS, I have witnessed the efforts of our outstanding faculty, students and staff to advance our missions. We have much more work to do and must now vow to do more to forge a better future together. I am confident that together, we shall."

Follow Laura Peters on Twitter: @peterslaura

This article originally appeared on Staunton News Leader: Eastern Virginia Medical School officials and alumni react to racist yearbook photo