Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam slammed for referring to 'first indentured servants from Africa' instead of slaves




  • In Business
  • 2019-02-11 16:04:33Z
  • By USA TODAY
 

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.

'A horrific week for Virginia': Gov. Ralph Northam takes on blackface scandal in first interview

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.

Poll: Virginia split on whether Gov. Ralph Northam should resign

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.

1619: 400 years ago, a ship arrived in Virginia, bearing human cargo

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.

Northam explained that he recently visited Fort Monroe, the site where those first Africans arrived, and was corrected by a historian after he referred to them as "enslaved."

"A historian advised me that the use of indentured was more historically accurate," Northam said in a statement to "CBS This Morning."

"The fact is, I'm still learning and committed to getting it right."

Northam has faced calls for his resignation from leading Democrats since his 1984 yearbook page from Eastern Virginia Medical School surfaced more than a week ago. The page included a photo of a man in blackface standing beside someone in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe.

Northam was far from alone: Why blackface keeps coming up

Northam at first admitted to being in the photo and apologized. But at a news conference the following day, he said he did not think he was in the picture, although he acknowledged donning blackface on a separate occasion as part of a Michael Jackson costume.

When asked why he would "apologize for something that horrific if you're not 100 percent sure that it's you," Northam told King that he "definitely overreacted."

Northam said that he had never seen the photo before news organizations published it and that it "shocked" him.

"When you're in a state of shock like I was, we don't always think as clearly as we should. I will tell you that later that night I had a chance to step back, take a deep breath, look at the picture and said, 'This is not me in the picture,'" he told King.

"I know it's not me in the Klan outfit. And I started looking in a picture of the individual with blackface. I said that's not me either. And that's why I felt so strongly about going in front of the camera on Saturday and clarifying."

Despite the uproar, Northam has resisted the cries for him to step aside.

"I'm not going anywhere," Northam told CBS.

"I'm a leader. I've been in some very difficult situations. Life and death situations, taking care of sick children. And right now, Virginia needs someone that can heal. There's no better person to do that than a doctor."

He framed the scandal as an opportunity for Virginia to address its legacy of slavery, racism, segregation and oppression.

"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," Northam said. "I really think this week raised a level of awareness in the Commonwealth and in this country that we haven't seen certainly in my lifetime.

'Tumultuous': Virginia politics in chaos amid Northam, Fairfax and Herring scandals

"I have learned from this. I have a lot more to learn. But we're in a unique opportunity now to really make some impactful changes."

One of the things Northam said he learned was that he was "born in white privilege."

"It is much different the way a white person such as myself is treated in this country," he said. "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."

When asked about the "drumbeat" of calls for him to resign, Northam said, "I don't live in a vacuum" and admitted he had "thought about resigning."

"But I've also thought about what Virginia needs right now," he said. "I can take Virginia to the next level."

When it comes to sexual-assault allegations that have been made against his Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, however, Northam called for an investigation and said resignation may be necessary.

"I can only imagine that it must take tremendous courage for women to step forward and talk about these things that are just so hurtful. And these accusations are very, very serious. They need to be taken seriously," Northam said. "As you know, Governor Fairfax has called for an investigation. I really think where we are now, we need to get to the truth.

"And if these accusations are determined to be true, I don't think he's going to have any other option but to resign."

Over the weekend, a Democratic state lawmaker threatened articles of impeachment against Fairfax, but backed off on Monday, saying "additional conversations" need to take place.

Contributing: E.R. Shipp

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam slammed for referring to 'first indentured servants from Africa' instead of slaves

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