Historians challenge Northam’s ’indentured servants’ remark
Historians say they were “shocked” and “mystified” when Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam wrongly used the term “indentured servants” Sunday in reference to the first Africans to arrive in English North America 400 years ago.
Most historians abandoned use of the term in the 1990s after historical records left little room for doubt that the Africans were enslaved, the scholars said.
“The indentured servitude thing is really bizarre,” said Davidson College professor Michael Guasco, who wrote the book “Slaves and Englishmen: Human Bondage in the Early Modern Atlantic World.” “He doesn’t come across as being particularly informed.”
The embattled Democratic governor used the term on CBS’s “Face the Nation” while discussing Virginia’s painful history of race relations. Northam said the “first indentured servants from Africa” arrived in what is now Virginia in 1619. Interviewer Gayle King interjected to say “also known as slavery.” Northam replied “yes.”
The Africans had come on two ships that had raided what’s believed to have been a Spanish slave vessel in the Gulf of Mexico. Sailing into the Chesapeake Bay to what is now Hampton, the ships traded more than 30 Africans for food and supplies. English colonists took the Africans, who came from what is now Angola, to properties along the James River.
Northam released a statement Monday to explain his use of the term. He said he spoke at a recent event about the arrival of the Africans “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,” Northam said.
Guasco, the Davidson College professor, said some historians did use the term from the 1970s to 1990s. That’s because a very small number of the first Africans became free decades later. But he said historians have since confirmed through records, including censuses, that most remained enslaved.
New York University history professor Rebecca Goetz was among those who chastised Northam on Twitter.
She said in a phone interview that Northam’s “indentured servant” remark is “shocking in light of his current political difficulties.”
Meanwhile, the clamor for the resignation of Virginia’s top two politicians seemed to die down Monday, with some black community leaders forgiving Gov. Ralph Northam over the blackface furor and calling for a fair hearing for Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax on the sexual assault allegations against him.
Over the past several days, practically the entire Democratic establishment rose up to demand fellow Democrats Northam and Fairfax immediately step down. But the tone changed markedly after the weekend.
A Democratic state lawmaker who had threatened to begin impeachment proceedings against Fairfax, Virginia’s highest-ranking black politician, set the idea aside after running into resistance.
At the same time, several black clergy and civic leaders made clear they are willing to give both Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring a second chance, while urging due process for Fairfax. Herring, like Northam, has admitted putting on blackface in the 1980s.
As the scandals engulfing Virginia’s top three elected Democrats developed, it became increasingly clear that it could look bad for the party if Fairfax were summarily pushed out and the two white men managed to stay in power.