Disgraced Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam landed himself in hot water again this week when he referenced “the first indentured servants from Africa” who arrived in Virginia, sparking backlash from critics who accused him of downplaying the horrors of slavery.
Northam kicked off his media apology tour on Monday in an attempt to save his image after a racist yearbook photo surfaced earlier this month. The Virginia Democrat has since faced pressure from his party to resign, but Northam has made it clear he isn’t going anywhere.
“Well it’s been a difficult week,” he told “CBS This Morning” host Gayle King. “And you know if you look at Virginia’s history, we’re now at the 400-year anniversary, just 90 miles from here in 1619. The first indentured servants from Africa landed on our shores in Old Point Comfort what we call now Fort Monroe and while —“
“Also known as slavery,” King quickly corrected him.
“Yes,” Northam conceded. “And while we have made a lot of progress in Virginia, slavery has ended. Schools have been desegregated. We have ended the Jim Crow laws, easier access to voting. It is abundantly clear we still have a lot of work to do and I really think this week raised a level of awareness in the Commonwealth, and in this country that we haven’t seen certainly in my lifetime.”
Social media critics wasted no time slamming Northam for his reference to indentured servitude.
@GovernorVA hasn’t learned anything, so let me help: Servants agreed (emphasis on agreed) to work for 4-7 years in exchange for transportation to the colonies,” political analyst Shermichael Singleton tweeted. “Slaves were brought to America against their will, which means they were forced. You get it now, @GovernorVA?”
“Words like ‘Indentured servant’ is how people try to erase the pain and horrors of slavery,” author Julissa Acre tweeted. “It’s how they think it harmless to wear blackface. @RalphNortham is done. If he won’t resign, he needs to be forced out.”
Another user argued that Northam “seriously needed a back hand as soon as the word indentured left his mouth … followed by … ‘what we not gone do …’ ”
“Ah yes, I do recall transatlantic indentured servant trade,” another joked.
Still, there were those who rushed to Northam’s defense and argued that the first Africans were indeed indentured servants when they arrived to Virginia in 1619.
“Folks, learn your damn history. Northam is correct,” author Kurt Eichenwald tweeted. “First black Africans brought to Virginia in 1619 were indentured servants. @GayleKing is wrong. There were no laws for slavery in VA til 1661. The evolution from IS to slavery is essential to understand depth of evil of slavery.”
In a follow-up tweet, Eichenwald wrote, “That 50 year transformation for black Africans from IS to slavery is the ultimate proof of the racism that drove slavery, because few other indentured servants were made slaves.”
USA TODAY pointed out that the status of the first African captives remains a hotly debated topic among historians. Howard University historian Daryl Scott told the newspaper that Black Africans, many of them ripped from their villages in present-day Angola, might have been “treated just like every other indentured person” and that some were even granted their freedom.
Scholars like Cassandra Newby-Alexander, a history professor at Norfolk State University, disagree, however, and believe the Africans were seized by Portuguese slave traders and that their status didn’t change after being brought to the New World.
“Either way, they were unfree,” Newby-Alexander argued.
In a statement to CNN, Northam later said a historian advised to use the term “indentured” because it was more “historically accurate.” “During a recent event at Fort Monroe I spoke about the arrival of the first Africans in Virginia and referred to them in my remarks as enslaved. A historian advised me that the use of indentured was more historically accurate — the fact is, I’m still learning and committed to getting it right.”
The Virginia governor has side-stepped calls for his resignation over a picture from his medical school yearbook featuring someone dressed in blackface and another in KKK robes.
Northam initially apologized for the photo, but later claimed it wasn’t him in the picture. He later admitted to donning blackface on a separate occasion where he dressed up as pop star Michael Jackson.
When asked why he would “apologize for something … if you’re not 100 percent sure that it’s you,” Northam told King he “definitely overreacted.”
“I’ve always been … a transparent person,” he added. “And I just thought it was important to … to let people know that … that that wasn’t me. That’s … not who I was … at that time. And it’s certainly not who I am now, after 35 years of service to … to this country and my commonwealth.”
Moving forward, Northam said he plans to “focus on race and equity” over the next three years.
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