Historians challenge Northam's 'indentured servants' remark

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam talks during an interview at the Governor's Mansion, Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019 in Richmond, Va. The embattled governor says he wants to spend the remaining three years of his term pursuing racial "equity." Northam told The Washington Post that there is a higher reason for the "horrific" reckoning over a racist photograph that appeared in his medical school yearbook. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via AP)

NORFOLK, Va. — 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.

The "indentured servant" remark is the governor's latest misstep in a blackface scandal that has shaken Virginia to its foundation. A racist photo recently surfaced from Northam's 1984 medical school year book. He denies being in the photo, but acknowledged wearing blackface at a dance party that same year.

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."

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