‘I would say that this is consistent with what we have seen from Northam over the past two weeks …’
(Robyn Sidersky, Saleen Martin and Gordon Rago, The Virginian-Pilot) In his first TV interview since becoming mired in scandal over a racist yearbook photo, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam stirred another controversy—this time one dating back 400 years.
“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,” he said in a nationally televised interview with CBS’s Gayle King on Sunday night.
That’s when King quickly interjected, calling it “slavery.”
Northam said “Yes” and moved on. But commentators did not.
Which is correct?
Indentured servitude is typically defined as temporary, once a way for people to pay off their passage to the new world with a period of work. Slavery, on the other hand, was permanent.
“I would say that this is consistent with what we have seen from Northam over the past two weeks in terms of these responses that are overlooking the anti-black racism that is foundational to slavery and the history of this country” said Allison Page, an assistant professor of media studies at Old Dominion University who studies the representation of slavery in U.S. media culture.
“The larger point: by saying indentured servants, it is softening the reality of the history of slavery,” she said. “Calling people who were enslaved indentured servants keeps erasing this history. … It’s minimizing these atrocities.”
Armed with historical records, historians have changed their interpretations over time, said Julie Richter, interim director of William & Mary’s National Institute of American History and Democracy.
One reason some might use the term indentured servants is because the first law to legalize slavery didn’t appear until 1661, Richter said.
But historians have more and more examined the words used in historical documents between 1619 and 1661, indicating some, if not all, Africans were treated as slaves when they arrived, Richter said.
There are a number of references in historical records referring to Africans in the 1630s, ’40s and ’50s using the phrase “negroes for life.”
“That’s not an indentured servant if you were held for life,” Richter said.
“If I read something that said all laborers who were brought to Virginia were indentured servants in the 17th century, I would say that’s simplistic,” she said. “It does not allow for the fact that we know Africans were enslaved.”
While Richter acknowledged history is up for interpretation and can be complicated, she said, “I haven’t seen anything to suggest they were treated as indentured servants.”
Northam released a statement Monday, explaining that a historian told him “indentured” was more historically accurate: “The fact is, I’m still learning and committed to getting it right.”
“He needs to listen to what people of color in particular have been telling him,” Page, at Old Dominion University, said.
“He really needs to think about these questions of justice and a larger project of addressing systemic racism,” she said. “He has a platform to do that. As governor, he has a lot of power to think about the ways we see these legacies.”
(c)2019 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.