Embattled Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is defending his use of the word ‘indentured servants’ to describe the first Africans believed to have reached Virginia’s shores, saying he got the information from a historian and is ‘still learning.’
The Democrat sat down with CBS News host Gayle King as he repeated his determination not to resign despite the page on his medical school yearbook that shows one person dressed in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe.
During the interview, as Northam repeatedly expressed his regret and insisted he would stay in office to help heal racial wounds, King cut him off after the ‘indentured servants’ remark – inserting dryly: ‘also known as slavery.’
She read from Northam’s statement attempting to explain the remark Monday morning. ‘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,’ Northam said in a statement King displayed on the screen on CBS ‘This morning.’
‘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.
Northam brought up the remark as his state – which was home to the Jamestown colony and later served as the capital of the confederacy –prepares to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Africans in Hampton.
According to a paper prepared last year for the Hampton History museum, those Africans arrived on an English privateer ship called the White Lion, and were exchanged with colonists in return for food and supplies.
‘On board were “20 and odd” captives taken from the Kingdom of Ndongo in west central Africa. They were sold to Sir George Yeardley (Virginia’s governor) and Abraham Peirsey (the Cape Merchant, the colony’s supply officer and trade agent) in return for food and supplies’ wrote curator Beth Austin.
‘Surviving documents do not describe the first Africans coming ashore, but they probably were taken off White Lion at Point Comfort, either temporarily before the White Lion sailed to Jamestown or to be transferred to smaller crafts to be resold elsewhere,’ she added.
They had been captured from a Spanish slave ship, and appeared on a 1620 census – but not identified by name, only as ‘Others not Christians in the Service of the English.’
Davidson College professor Michael Guasco told PBS some historians in the 1970s through the 90s described the initial small group of Africans as indentured because some became free decades later. But he added that historians have confirmed they arrived as slaves and most remained so through their lives.
Northam repeatedly expressed regret and said he is not the person he was during his youth, after attending a desegregated school in Virginia’s rural Eastern Shore.
‘I was born in white privilege and that has implications to it. It is much different the way a white person such as myself is – is treated in this country versus,’ he said.
‘Did you not know that you were born into white privilege?’ King asked him.
‘I knew I was, Ms. King. but I didn’t realize really the powerful implications of that. And again talking to a lot of friends that has come crystal clear to me this week. I have also learned why the use of blackface is so offensive and yes I knew it in the past. But reality has really set in,’ Northam said.
‘But Governor it’s hard for people listening to you, an educated man, at the age of 59 to say that you’re just learning about the history of it. You didn’t know the history, know that it was offensive before?’ King pressed.
‘I think we’re all on a learning curve, and certainly, Ms. King, I am not the same person now at age 59 that I was back in my early 20s,’ he responded.
During a key moment of the interview, King lectured Northam on slavery as he explained why he wasn’t resigning in the wake of a racially offensive photo that set off a series of scandals in his state.
‘Well, it has been a difficult week,’ he told CBS of the scandal that resulted in several Democratic leaders calling for his resignation. ‘And you know if you look at Virginia’s history we are 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,’ interviewer Gayle King interrupted.
‘Yes,’ Northam said. ‘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 that we still have a lot of work to do and I really think this week raised a level of awareness in the Commonwealth.’
Northam is still reeling from last week’s revelation of a photo of a man in blackface in his 1984 medical school yearbook. The man is at a Halloween party, holding a beer and standing next to another man dressed as a member of the KKK.
He immediately apologized for appearing in the photograph, saying he could not ‘undo the harm my behavior caused then and today.’
The next day, however, in a bizarre press conference the governor reversed course and said he wasn’t in the picture. He said he would remember dressing in that because he remembered he once dressed in blackface as Michael Jackson and noted the make up used to color his skin was difficult to remove.
The head-scratching explanation did not help his cause among Democrats and Northam hunkered down behind the closed doors of the gubernatorial mansion as he weighed his political future after party big wigs like Hillary Clinton, former Vice President Joe Biden, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, former Attorney General Eric Holder and several 2020 presidential candidates called for his to resign.
Northam told CBS News – in his first televised interview since the scandal – that he’s aware most Democrats have called for his head.
‘You know, I don’t live in a vacuum. And so yes, I have heard it,’ Northam said. ‘I have thought about resigning, but I’ve also thought about what Virginia needs right now. And I really think that I’m in a position where I can take Virginia to the next level.’
‘Virginia also needs someone who is strong, who has empathy, who has courage and who has a moral compass. And that’s why I’m not going anywhere,’ Northam added.
He said he could help the state heal in his capacity as a doctor and noted he’s learned a lot from the situation.
‘Virginia needs someone that can heal. There’s no better person to do that than a doctor. Virginia also needs someone who is strong, who has empathy, who has courage and who has a moral compass. And that’s why I’m not going anywhere. I have learned from this. I have a lot more to learn. But we’re in a unique opportunity now,’ he said.
The photo set off a flurry of scandals in Virginia that engulfed its top three Democrats and left the political establishment reeling.
Poll numbers show Northam’s support is strong among African Americans and running even in the wider margins of the state.
A Washington Post-Schar School poll this weekend found that a majority of black residents of the state say Northam should remain in office by a margin of 58 percent to 37 percent.
Overall, Virginians are split on Northam: 47 percent want him to step down and 47 percent said he should stay on.
With his decision to stay in the gubernatorial mansion, Northam defied practically the entire Democratic Party.
The pressure on Northam to resigned eased up in the wake of scandals that engulfed his lieutenant governor and the state attorney general. The potentially career-ending scandals involving the top three Democrats in the state capitol in shambles.
On Friday, a second woman accused Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax of rape.
Northam said if the allegations against him are true, then Fairfax should resign.
‘If these accusations are determined to be true, I don’t think he’s going to have any other option but to resign,’ he told CBS News.
Asked if Fairfax should go ahead and resign, Northam said: ‘That’s going to be a decision that he needs to make.’
Fairfax was one of the few Democrats not to call for Northam’s resignation from the start. He would have been elevated to the gubernatorial mansion if Northam resigned.
Northam said he supported Fairfax’s call for an investigation into the allegations.
‘I can only imagine that it must take tremendous courage for women to step forward and and talk about these things that are just so hurtful. And these accusations are very, very serious. They need to be taken seriously. As you know, Governor Fairfax has called for an investigation. I really think where we are now, we need to get to the truth,’ he said.
Northam did defend his Attorney General Mark Herring, who is the third Virginia in trouble after admitting that he had worn blackface to imitate African-Americans decades ago.
‘Well I know Attorney General Herring well, as I do Lieutenant Governor Fairfax, and you know we have all grown. I don’t know what the attorney general was thinking, what his perception was of race, of – of the use of blackface back then. But I can tell you that I am sure, just like me, he has grown. He has served Virginia well and he and I and Justin, all three of us have fought for equality. And so again I regret that our Attorney General is in this position but this is a decision that he’s going to need to make,’ he told CBS News.
Although the Democratic Party has taken almost a zero-tolerance approach to misconduct among its members in this #MeToo era, a housecleaning in Virginia could be costly: If all three Democrats resigned, Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox would become governor.
Before his own potentially disqualifying scandal erupted, Herring stood to become governor if Northam and Fairfax found the political heat too much to bear and quit.
Herring told members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus during an emergency closed-door meeting Wednesday morning that he wore blackface on at least one occasion while he was a University of Virginia student in 1980.
Herring had previously called on Northam to resign and came forward after rumors about the existence of a blackface photo of him began circulating at the Capitol.
But his scandal was overshadowed by the controversies swirling around Fairfax with the second accusation of rape against him.
Meredith Watson released a letter through her lawyer on Friday calling for Fairfax’s resignation claiming he sexually assaulted her in 2000 when they were both students at Duke University.
‘Mr. Fairfax’s attack was premeditated and aggressive. The two were friends but never dated or had any romantic relationship,’ the letter states.
Watson’s attorney does not provide specific details of the attack but states the assault was ‘similar’ to that of Vanessa Tyson, who on Wednesday, publicly accused Fairfax of raping her in 2004.
Watson was ‘upset’ to learn Fairfax, 39, had assaulted another woman and reluctantly decided to come forward ‘out of a strong sense of civic duty.’
‘At this time, Ms Watson is reluctantly coming forward out of a strong sense of civic duty and her belief that those seeking or serving in public office should be of the highest character,’ the letter continued.
Watson has provided emails and Facebook messages with friends and classmates which her lawyer says prove she told them of the incident immediately after it happened.
Those witnesses have also provided statements corroborating Watson’s allegations.
Her lawyer said her client is not looking to become a media personality nor is she seeking financial damages, but rather, is hoping Fairfax will resign.
Fairfax released a statement shortly after the allegations emerged saying he does not intend to step down.
‘I deny this latest unsubstantiated allegation. It is demonstrably false. I have never forced myself on anyone ever,’ he said.
‘I demand a full investigation into these unsubstantiated and false allegations. Such an investigation will confirm my account because I am telling the truth.
‘I will clear my good name and I have nothing to hide. I have passed two full field background checks by the FBI and run for office in two highly contested elections with nothing like this being raised before.
‘It is obvious that a vicious and coordinated smear campaign is being orchestrated against me.
‘I will not resign.’
Fairfax is also dealing with the fallout of the first allegation against him.
Vanessa Tyson alleged on Wednesday that Fairfax raped her during the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston.
Tyson issued a stinging statement through her lawyers, saying: ‘What began as consensual kissing quickly turned into a sexual assault. Mr. Fairfax put his hand behind my neck and forcefully pushed my head towards his crotch. Only then did I realize that he had unbuckled his belt, unzipped his pants, and taken out his penis. He then forced his penis into my mouth.’
‘Utterly shocked and terrified, I tried to move my head away, but could not because his hand was holding down my neck and he was much stronger than me. As I cried and gagged, Mr. Fairfax forced me to perform oral sex on him.
‘I cannot believe, given my obvious distress, that Mr. Fairfax thought this forced sexual act was consensual. To be very clear, I did not want to engage in oral sex with Mr. Fairfax and I never gave any form of consent.’
Democratic Rep; Jennifer Wexton became the first member of Virginia’s congressional delegation to weigh in on the Fairfax scandal, tweeting Wednesday afternoon: ‘I believe Dr. Vanessa Tyson.’
The 39-year-old Fairfax’s political future seemed to unravel in slow-motion on Wednesday as sources told NBC News that he had snapped out of his normal mild manner to condemn Tyson during a private meeting with staff – shouting: ‘F**k that b***h!’
Lawrence Roberts, Fairfax’s chief of staff, insisted to a Washington Post reporter that the lieutenant governor never said those words: ‘Absolutely not true. I was there.’
On Saturday, Northam made his first official public appearance since he his press conference where he denied being in the photo, attending the funeral for a state trooper killed in a shootout. But he made no public comments upon arriving in Chilhowie, four hours west of the tumult in Richmond.
In his first interview since the scandal erupted, a chastened Northam told The Washington Post on Saturday that the uproar has pushed him to confront the state’s deep and lingering divisions over race, as well as his own insensitivity.
But he said that reflection has convinced him that, by remaining in office, he can work to resolve them. He said: ‘It’s obvious from what happened this week that we still have a lot of work to do. There are still some very deep wounds in Virginia, and especially in the area of equity.’
Northam said he planned to work for the rest of his term to address issues stemming from inequality, including improving access to health care, housing, and transportation. He also repeated his contention that he is not the one pictured on his yearbook page in blackface. But he could not explain how it wound up there, or why he had taken responsibility for it.
He added: ‘I overreacted. If I had it to do over again, I would step back and take a deep breath.’
Northam has now also said he can’t be man in blackface because he’s left handed and both people are holding beers in their right, according to reports.
In his initial apology, Northam, a pediatric neurologist, said that the photo does not represent who he is now.
But a day later he denied being in the photograph at all.
‘It has taken time for me to make sure that it’s not me, but I am convinced, I am convinced that I am not in that picture,’ he told reporters at the Executive Mansion in Richmond, calling the picture offensive and horrific.
SOURCE: Daily Mail, Geoff Earle and Emily Goodin