Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam Criticized for Referring to Slaves as ‘Indentured Servants from Africa’ During CBS Interview

Embattled Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s media apology tour is off to a rough start. 

Northam went on “CBS This Morning” in an interview that aired Monday in an effort to save his political career after reporters uncovered a racist photo on his medical school yearbook page.

At the top of the interview, Northam referred to “the first indentured servants from Africa” who arrived in Virginia, and is now facing backlash from critics accusing him of minimizing historic horrors with a euphemism for slavery.

“Well, it has been a difficult week,” Northam said after the first question from CBS’ Gayle King. “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.”

“Also known as slavery,” King said.

“Yes,” Northam said.

Commentators on social media sharply criticized his reference to indentured servants.

“Words like ‘Indentured servant’ is how people try to erase the pain and horrors of slavery. It is how they think it harmless to wear blackface. @RalphNortham is done. If he won’t resign, he needs to be forced out,” author Julissa Arce tweeted.

But others defended Northam and said he was correct about the status of the Africans who arrived in Virginia in 1619.

“Folks, learn your damn history. Northam is correct. 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,” author Kurt Eichenwald tweeted.

“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,” Eichenwald added.

The actual status of the first African captives brought to Virginia is still debated by historians.

About 20 African captives arrived at Point Comfort in 1619 in what would later become Virginia. They were taken from their villages in present-day Angola, forced onto a Portuguese slave ship and then stolen by English pirates. Their arrival in the New World was logged by John Rolfe, the widower of Pocahontas.

“They had indentured people in Virginia, and some people may have seen Africans just like they saw other indentured people. We know some people became free, so it looks like they were treated like every other indentured person,” Howard University historian Daryl Scott said. Some of those early arrivals even went on to acquire land and slaves themselves.

But other scholars say they were seized by Portuguese slave traders and their status did not change after being brought to budding English colony.

“Either way, they were unfree,” said Cassandra Newby-Alexander, a history professor at Norfolk State University.

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SOURCE: USA Today, William Cummings