Like many, Chelsea Higgs Wise was outraged when Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s history of blackface was exposed. At the same time, she wasn’t surprised.
The Virginia-based organizer called Northam out before anyone cracked open his college yearbook, as she was critical of Northam and his first lady's apparent allergy to the word “Black.” In an op-ed for RVA Magazine aptly titled “Northam’s Inauguration, Talk Intersectional to Me,” she described the governor’s history of “all lives matter” lip service.
“Simply speaking of a ‘unique’ history when referring to the organized genocide and treasonous acts against our African ancestors is not enough in the former Capital of the Confederacy,” Wise wrote. “Maintaining this traditional white-washed, colorblind, political speech repeatedly fails to recognize the lives that are continuing to be lost due to the systemic oppression the Civil War and slave trade historically caused.”
Northam’s yearbook photos merely confirmed what Wise already suspected.
“The blackface photos just kind of made sense with his original thinking, and what we’re seeing acted out in every day policy and interactions with Black folks around here,” she told Blavity.
Wise got word of Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring’s own blackface-related shenanigans a couple days before it hit the media. She had a conversation with another organizer and joked about flipping through other politician’s yearbooks. Eventually, they wanted to “put more intention” behind the idea, so they started a GoFundMe to kick-start a project that uncovers similar scenarios involving other elected officials in Virginia.
The project employs students from Virginia’s historically Black colleges and universities to look into pictures, yearbooks and other “institutional artifacts” from politicians’ pasts at predominantly white colleges and universities, to convey the importance of HBCUs. Students are paid $25 per hour for their efforts. In addition to offering students a fair wage, Wise hopes they will leave with resources and connections to aid them in the future. The students have already expressed interest in disseminating their findings to their peers and setting up a digital platform for public access.
While the news media cycle may have moved on from the Northam controversy, the push for accountability continues. Wise hopes to keep this project going.
“I want this to be more than a one-time thing,” she said. “When these reports come out to the local community, I want people to see it as a pipeline for disrupting a lot of what we see, like the school-to-prison pipeline. I want to have young Black voices involved in these campaigns.”
As of press time, the GoFundMe page has raised over $7,000. The project officially launched on March 31.
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