Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam Criticized Over ‘Indentured Servants’ Comment
February 12, 2019
NORFOLK, Va. — 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But historians have more and more examined the words used in historical documents between 1619 and 1661, indicating some, if not all, Africans were treated as slaves when they arrived, Richter said.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.”
Cassandra Newby-Alexander, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and professor of history at Norfolk State University, said Northam’s use of the term was inaccurate, but not surprising.
“He was probably basing it off of the textbooks in the past that listed them as indentured servants,” she said. “I’m just not surprised that he would have that perception because that has been the way that they’ve been characterized for a number of decades.”
The lines between how Africans were labeled and how they were treated have also been blurred, she said. The records historians use list Africans as “servants,” but they were often seen as enslaved.
“Indentured servitude has a specific end date,” Newby-Alexander said. “The European servants coming in had negotiated contracts. The Africans did not. What some legal scholars are starting to argue is that the term ‘servant’ was used when referring to African servants in the same way that you would refer to a slave.”
Looking back at the laws doesn’t necessarily clear up the confusion. In 1661, a law said all incoming Africans would be enslaved, but there was no law legalizing domestic slavery until the 1680s.
“There were some inconsistencies because of a lack of laws in whether or not these individuals were enslaved,” Newby-Alexander said. “For historians, it has been kind of a difficult thing trying to parse it out.”
Not everyone would say Northam was wrong, though.
Tommy Bogger, former director of archives and a retired professor at Norfolk State University, said Northam was “closer to the truth” when he said “indentured servant.” Many historians believe slavery started in 1619 when the first blacks arrived, he said. That’s not entirely true.
The difference between slavery and indentured servitude, he said, is that slavery was based on race and it was a “life term.”
“I feel more comfortable labeling them as being indentured servants than slaves because we know that certainly within a few years, some of them were freed and given land,” he said. “The records indicate that some of the blacks were treated similar to indentured servants in that in a period of time, they gained their freedom.”
Still, he said, there were some differences between the Europeans and the Africans. The Europeans had contracts negotiated before they left England. Africans did not, he said.
“It seemed like they weren’t quite sure how to handle those early blacks,” Bogger said. “But certainly some were eventually freed and some even received land, so all of them certainly were not regarded as slaves.”
Robin Reed, executive director of the Casemate Museum at Fort Monroe, has studied African and African-American history for 40 years and still “doesn’t have all the answers.”
“There is a lot of misinterpretation of the monikers used on the very complicated subject of slavery,” he said.
He said that when referring to the arrival in 1619, we’re talking about individuals who had no free will and no choice and “at that point in time they were enslaved.”
“I think we are still finding new things about the enslaved that landed here and arrived in the new world,” he said.
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.”
©2019 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
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