The great-grandfather of Virginia governor Ralph Northam was a leader of the Red Shirts, a quasi-Klan militant group known for terrorizing black Republicans during Reconstruction.
Captain John Brownlee, who died in 1912, has his membership of the group mentioned in two obituaries. One obituary refers to ‘his valiant company of “Red Shirts,”’ and that ‘he did as much to redeem his country from Radical rule and tyranny as any other man in upper Carolina.’ The other obituary states that he ‘took a very active part in the red shirt times of ’76, being captain of one of the Abbeville companies.’
The Red Shirts were a Democratic militant group formed in South Carolina around the time of the 1876 election to apply a doctrine of ‘force without violence’ to intimidate blacks and Republicans. But they did use violence. In one incident in Ellenton, the Red Shirts killed 30 black militiamen.
In 2017, Northam told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that he just learned from his father, Westcott Northam, that his family had owned slaves. Westcott Northam’s maternal grandfather was John Brownlee, the Red Shirt.
Brownlee’s father, John Brownlee Snr., was also part of the Abbeville Meeting, heralded by Lost Cause defenders as the first place secession was discussed in the South before the Civil War. He is listed as having been part of that meeting on a plaque put up by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1927:
Northam’s great-grandfather is buried in Abbeville, S.C., and his tombstone bears a Masonic square and compass:
Nobody thinks Northam must be blamed for his ancestral sins, but it’s worth asking: does he know that his great-grandfather was a violent supremacist? Did that affect his decision as a boy to apparently stand either in blackface or a KKK robe?