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Bill McCarthy
By Bill McCarthy September 6, 2019

It’s true: There are more governors who have worn blackface than black governors

An activist on Twitter posted an eye-popping statistic about the governors currently in office in the United States.

"America has more governors who’ve worn blackface than black governors," said Samuel Sinyangwe, co-founder of Campaign Zero, an activist group focused on police violence, in a viral Aug. 30 tweet that was cited by anchor Chuck Todd of NBC’s "Meet the Press."

This claim was easy to fact-check: There are zero black governors for the 50 states. But there are two governors who’ve apologized for wearing blackface. 

Sinyangwe’s tweet came on the heels of an Aug. 29 report that Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey had apologized after audio emerged of a 52-year-old radio interview in which she talked about wearing blackface for a student skit at Auburn University.

In February, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said he was one of two men pictured in a racist yearbook photograph from 1984, which showed one man dressed in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe. At the time, Northam did not say which costume he was wearing. But he later recanted his apology, saying neither man in the photograph was him. 

An investigation commissioned by Eastern Virginia Medical School, where Northam got his medical degree, did not conclude whether Northam was in the picture from its 1984 yearbook.

"With respect to the photograph on Gov. Northam’s personal page, we could not conclusively determine the identity of either individual depicted in the photograph," the final report said. "The governor himself has made inconsistent public statements in this regard."

When Northam said the investigation "confirmed what I said all along, that I’m not in the picture," we rated his statement False.

Depending on whether you count Northam, there’s at least one governor — and possibly a second — who has owned up to wearing blackface in the past. 

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Meanwhile, there are currently no black governors, according to Rutgers University’s Center on the American Governor. Out of 50 sitting governors, 47 are white, and the remaining three are Hispanic, Asian American and Native American.

Only two African Americans have been elected governor, with the most recent being Democrat Deval Patrick, who was voted into office in Massachusetts in 2006. Democrat Douglas Wilder had previously been elected as Virginia’s governor, a post he held from 1990 to 1994.

Before Wilder’s election, the only black governor had been P. B. S. Pinchback, who stepped in as Louisiana’s governor for 34 days in 1872 while the incumbent faced impeachment, according to CBS News. In 2008, Democrat David Paterson was also appointed governor of New York after Eliot Spitzer resigned.

Democrats Stacey Abrams, Andrew Gillum and Ben Jealous, all black, lost gubernatorial races in Georgia, Florida and Maryland in 2018.

"When a lot of African Americans start their political careers, they often run in places with large or growing African American populations," said Andra Gillespie, professor of political science at Emory University. "Given the fact that there is no state that has a majority black population, that presents a challenge."

That’s why black candidates have been more successful getting elected as mayors of cities or members of Congress from urban districts with heavy black populations, said John Weingart, director of the Center on the American Governor.

"The two elected governors, certainly in the case of Deval Patrick, have been considered successful governors," he added. "So it’s not like getting one in necessarily opens the door."

There have still been plenty of predominantly white jurisdictions that have put black politicians in various offices, Gillespie said, but the "historical norm" is that black candidates fare better when black voters can get to the polls. For much of American history, that wasn’t possible.

"For nearly 100 years after black rights to vote were protected by the 15th Amendment, a number of the states in which African Americans lived came up with ingenious ways to prevent African Amerricans from being able to exercise their right to vote," Gillespie said. "What that did was shut off an opportunity for blacks to be able to run for office."

In an email to PolitiFact, Sinyangwe noted that the governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Albert Bryan, is black. The U.S. Virgin Islands is a territory, not a state.

Our ruling

Sinyangwe said, "America has more governors who’ve worn blackface than black governors."

There are currently no black governors in the United States. But there’s at least one, Ivey, who has admitted to wearing blackface in the past, and Northam has been accused of the same.

We rate this statement True.

Our Sources

Samuel Sinyangwe on Twitter, Aug. 30, 2019

NBC News, "Meet the Press," Sept. 1, 2019

Rutgers University Center on the American Governor, "Fast Facts about American Governors," May 2019 

McGuire Woods LLP, "Report to Eastern Virginia Medical School," May 21, 2019, "Gov. Kay Ivey apologizes for racist skit from time at Auburn," Aug. 29, 2019

The New York Times, "Alabama’s Governor, Kay Ivey, Apologizes for Blackface Skit in College," Aug. 29, 2019

Ralph Northam on Twitter, Feb. 1, 2019

The New York Times, "Was That Ralph Northam in Blackface? An Inquiry Ends Without Answers," May 22, 2019

CNN, "Virginia governor apologizes for 'racist and offensive' costume in photo showing people in blackface and KKK garb," Feb. 7, 2019

CBS News, "Jan. 13th, 1990: First elected black governor in U.S. takes office," Jan. 13, 2016

PolitiFact, "Northam wrongly says report confirms he wasn't in racist photo," June 4, 2019

Email interview with Samuel Sinyangwe, co-founder of Campaign Zero, Sept. 3, 2019

Phone interview with Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science at Emory University, Sept. 6, 2019

Phone interview with John Weingart, director of the Center on the American Governor at Rutgers University, Sept. 6, 2019

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It’s true: There are more governors who have worn blackface than black governors

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