Meet the black farmer who has helped advise Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on race

John Boyd describes the situation as a “very teachable moment.”

March 2, 2019, 4:19 PM

John Boyd said he first met Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam to talk about how the government shutdown was impacting black farmers.

Nearly two weeks after their first meeting, Virginia would be consumed by a series of race-related scandals embroiling the governor, first lady, and attorney general.

Northam faced national backlash and calls from some in his state to step down after a photo, which depicts two men, one in a Ku Klux Klan robe and another in blackface, on his yearbook page. Northam has denied he was in the picture, has not resigned and has since been on a racial reconciliation tour of sorts meeting with civil rights leaders and others.

Those conservations included discussions with Boyd who, for three decades, has advocated for black farmers as the founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association.

He says Northam’s lack of political experience has been a hindrance in his ability to bounce back following the yearbook controversy.

“I believe sometimes the governor may not have the right choice of words, due to the fact that he’s clearly not a sharped-edged politician that’s been poised at doing those type of off-the-cuff comments over the career,” he said.

Boyd is a fourth-generation farmer who has testified in Congress, met with presidential candidates, and has successfully lobbied for legislation from Rep. Maxine Waters and then-Sen. Barack Obama in efforts to fight discriminatory practices against black farmers.

That included legislation that paid $1.25 billion to black farmers who filed a civil rights lawsuit saying they were discriminated against by the U.S. Agriculture Department.

PHOTO: John Wesley Boyd Jr. poses for a portrait at his farm,  May 9, 2012, in Baskerville, VA.
John Wesley Boyd Jr. poses for a portrait at his farm, May 9, 2012, in Baskerville, VA.
The Washington Post/Getty Images, FILE

In the past month, Boyd said he has met with the governor two additional times and has had several phone calls during which he has had frank discussions about race relations. He describes the situation as a “very teachable moment.”

A spokeswoman for the governor said Northam "values his friendship and appreciated Mr. Boyd provided to visit with Virginia black farmers and discuss the challenges they face."

Boyd, meanwhile, posted a photo to Twitter in February from his meeting with Northam, where he urged the governor not to resign. Northam responded by saying, "John, I enjoyed hearing from you today. Thank you for your great work on behalf of Black farmers."

Boyd said he has become an ally to the governor and has called for him to stay in office. He adds that Northam “understands the severity" of what was depicted in the photo and "he understands the impact of what he has to do to move forward and heal Virginia.”

On the last day of Black History Month, Northam spoke at the Richmond Slave Trail Commission for the opening of a new exhibition series. During his remarks, which were his first public appearance in weeks, Northam made no mention of the yearbook photo.

“This year, we’re marking the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Virginia. Your work and this exhibit are important components of telling the story of where those first Africans were taken from and what happened here in Virginia,” Northam said.

By keeping Northam in office, Boyd believes it would be more beneficial to African-Americans than replacing him with a new governor.

“I think as if there is some pressure there for the governor to have to step it up and do some things for the African-American community,” Boyd added. “A new governor may come in and not have to do anything, may not have to feel like they have to do anything in the African American community.”

He believes Virginia has “the chance to take something bad and turn it into something good.”

Boyd’s decision to stick by Northam aligns with the 58 percent of African-American voters who in late February said that they believe that Northam should remain in office, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll conducted last month.

He, like several African-American Northam supporters ABC News spoke to in recent weeks, said: “The issue of blackface opened up a national dialogue, not just in Virginia but nationally.”

Terrie Pendleton stood alone on a corner in the shadows of the Virginia State Capitol on a cold February day, holding a sign that read: “African American! Woman! Gay! ‘I believe’ that Governor Northam & Attorney General Herring should stay!”

During an interview with ABC News, Pendleton said she doesn't feel the governor should step aside.

“Why should Governor Northam and Mark Herring resign? I think they should stay and I think we should find a bigger picture here. Something we can all learn from. Forgiveness equals change,” Pendelton said, stressing that this was a teachable moment for America.

There was a bigger picture that Americans "can learn from this we can grow from this" Pendleton added.

Boyd stressed that “blackface is not just a Virginia issue, but a national issue.”

PHOTO: Virginia Governor Ralph Northam speaks with reporters at a press conference at the Governor's mansion on Feb. 2, 2019, in Richmond, Va.
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam speaks with reporters at a press conference at the Governor's mansion on Feb. 2, 2019, in Richmond, Va.
Alex Edelman/Getty Images

However, in Virginia, thorny issues of race and politics have taken a particularly public and contentious turn. Pam Northam, the wife of the embattled governor, apologized on Wednesday after she allegedly gave out raw cotton and asked black children to imagine being slaves who were forced to pick cotton during a governor’s mansion tour.

Virginia's Attorney General Mark Herring, who is white and is third in line for the governorship, apologized for attending a 1980 party dressed as rapper Kurtis Blow and wearing brown makeup on his face.

After his meeting last week with Northam at his farm in rural Virginia, Boyd says he’s reached out to Herring and is expected to speak to the governor for a scheduled follow up in the coming days.

He called the governor's wife's comments "clearly a poor choice of words during a very poor time of history.” He added that "being Virginia and that particular mansion, being the oldest [occupied] executive mansion that has slave quarters, this could be looked upon poorly in the black community.”

PHOTO: Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, left, accompanied by his wife, Pam, speaks during a news conference in the governor's mansion in Richmond, Va.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, left, accompanied by his wife, Pam, speaks during a news conference in the governor's mansion in Richmond, Va.
Steve Helber/AP

Going forward, Boyd believes Virginia's first lady should greet visitors and let African-Americans talk about the brutal and complex history of cotton in the state and how that history has impacted African Americans.

And while he hasn’t spoken to Northam recently, Boyd plans on advising him to hire an African-American senior staffer that can advise him about race-relations, something he’s advocated the governor on before.

He hopes Northam will take his advice.

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