Virginia Scandals Deepen: A GOP Leader Was Editor of Yearbook With Racist Photos and Slurs
By Katherine Hafner
A Virginia Military Institute yearbook overseen by future state Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment in 1968 features a host of racist photos and slurs, including blackface.
The revelation about one of Virginia's most powerful Republicans comes as the state's Democratic governor and attorney general are facing calls to resign over their own admissions they wore blackface as young men.
Norment, R-James City County, was managing editor of The Bomb publication that year. He went to VMI in Lexington after graduating from James Blair High School in Williamsburg and has been a state senator since 1992.
On one page of the yearbook, a student poses in blackface, surrounded by others in costumes at a party. Another page features a photo of two men in blackface holding a football.
The N-word is used at least once. A student listed as being from Bangkok, Thailand, is referred to as a "Chink" and "Jap."
A blurb under one man's picture says: "He was known as the 'Barracks Jew' having his fingers in the finances of the entire Corps."
The Bomb has been published continuously since 1897. The first black students were allowed to enroll at the institute in the fall of 1968.
When a reporter asked Norment to talk about the yearbook Thursday, the majority leader said, "The only thing I'm talking about today is the budget."
"I'm here to pass a budget today," he added when pressed as he headed into a Republican Caucus meeting in late morning.
Virginia's lawmakers are already reeling after a series of disclosures about the state's top three Democratic officials. Many have called for Gov. Ralph Northam to resign after a page from his 1984 medical school yearbook surfaced showing a photo of a man in blackface and KKK robe. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax has been accused of sexually assaulting a woman at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and Attorney General Mark Herring admitted this week to dressing in blackface during his time at University of Virginia.
"It has been the objective of this year's Bomb staff to concentrate on the VMI as it exists in actuality, not in theory," Norment wrote in the yearbook on a page for its editors. "There is an ever-broadening chasm between the two positions. With the completion of this editorial and the 1968 Bomb, I regretfully leave behind the theme 'Honor Above Self' and the loyalty of a few selected Brother Rats. Work on the Bomb has permitted me to release four years of inhibitions. And now, I am sorry our work is completed. It is a feeling only genuinely understood by those of us who labored in the 'den of inequity.'"
Col. Stewart MacInnis, VMI's director of communications, said he couldn't speak to "what was going through people's minds then, or why they thought this was appropriate."
"The point that it was a different time may not be a sufficient explanation, in my mind," he said Thursday.
Several years ago, the school changed its process for reviewing The Bomb, MacInnis said, adding layers of review by faculty advisors and himself. But there's always tension for overseeing the student-supported publication, he added, because "they've got their First Amendment rights."
On Wednesday, VMI officials met to further discuss the yearbook review process, MacInnis said -- prompted "because of all this stuff coming up."
He said he'd flipped through a dozen or so yearbooks from recent decades and had not seen racist photos. But the school has a history that dovetails with the history of the state, including through the Civil War, he said.
It's a time "to try to draw lessons from what we've done in the past. This is an example of what we have lessons to draw from."
Northam also attended VMI, graduating in 1981. His yearbook lists his nickname as "Coonman." He said friends gave him that name, and he's not sure why.
Scot Marsh, a close friend of Northam's at VMI, estimated about seven out of 10 cadets had nicknames back then. Some were given by their classmates and others by their "dykes," or first-class mentors. The protegees were referred to as "rats."
It wasn't uncommon for some of the nicknames to be considered slurs or offensive. After flipping through his yearbook Saturday, Marsh said he noticed a man was dubbed "Jew" and another "Pan Face."
Often the names were embarrassing and meant to poke fun of someone's appearance.
"I probably wouldn't start a job interview, 'Hey, my nickname at VMI was Anvil Head,'" he said.
Marsh said he didn't remember Northam having a nickname in those days and reached out to some of his classmates to find out whether they knew the origins of "Coonman." He still doesn't have an answer, he said. But it's not a name he believes his former classmate would have picked himself.
"This racial thing, it shocks me," he said.
Staff writer Gary Harki contributed to this report.
(c)2019 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
*CORRECTION: The headline on this story previously suggested that Norment was the yearbook editor for the medical school that Northam attended. It was a different university.