Virginia Gov. Northam’s ‘Misconception’ of Indentured Servitude and Slavery

In an interview with CBS anchor Gayle King, which aired on Sunday, Virginia State Gov. Ralph Northam referred to enslaved Africans as “indentured servants.”


The governor, who refuses to resign after his blackface transgression while in medical school, acknowledged that the state of Virginia was once “the heart of the Confederacy” and maintained he is very capable of helping the state “heal.”

When Northam made the “indentured servant” statement, King, quickly, corrected him stating: “Also known as slavery.”

“Yes,” Northam said.

As much as people would like to criticize Northam’s “ignorance” of not knowing the differences between slavery and indentured servitude, Americans have to admit that the educational system, throughout the nation, has failed miserably with reference to properly teaching its citizens the hard truth about slavery.

With that said, there were 20 Africans who were actually indentured servants in Jamestown in 1619. Northam’s comment on CBS may have been referencing only that part of Virginia’s history.

New York Times best-selling author and Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Kurt Eichenwald, stated that Northam’s assessment wasn’t wrong.

Northam had made a speech at the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Africans to the state. He even led the ceremonial singing. He said, in a statement, Monday that a “historian advised me that the use of indentured was more historically accurate.”

Cassandra Newby-Alexander, a professor of history at Norfolk State University, has a differing opinion on the subject.

Whether indentured servants or slaves, Newby-Alexander says, “Either way, they were unfree.”

Meanwhile, Howard University historian Daryl Scott said in a recent interview with USA Today:

“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.”

 

In essence, the interaction between King and Northam should have lead to a bigger discussion. King’s correction, with no frame of reference, and Northam’s comment, with no elaboration, made for an uncomfortable moment during the interview.

That speaks to a bigger issue, though.

According to an article in The Atlantic, “Among 12th-graders, only 8 percent could identify slavery as the cause of the Civil War. Fewer than one-third (32 percent) correctly named the 13th Amendment as the formal end of U.S. slavery, with a slightly higher share (35 percent) choosing the Emancipation Proclamation. And fewer than half (46 percent) identified the ‘Middle Passage’ as the transport of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to North America.”

These statistics confirm not only that classroom textbooks aren’t adequately covering slavery, but that educators aren’t sufficiently prepared to discuss it. It is evident that students, Black and white, lack the basic knowledge of the crucial impact slavery played in American history with reference to race relations.

Ursula Wolfe-Rocca, a high-school U.S.-history teacher in Lake Oswego, Ore., takes a direct approach to teaching her students about slavery. Many times her students come in with incorrect information about how slavery ended and also about President Lincoln’s role in the abolition of slavery.

Wolfe-Rocca stated: “Read Lincoln’s first inaugural address and you do not find a fiery abolitionist, but someone promising to enforce the fugitive slave clause; read the articles of secession, and you find striking declarations from slave states that their actions are rooted in a desire to protect [slavery].”

The undeniable truth of the matter is slavery played a pivotal role in the development of this nation. So much to the point that even the “founding fathers” who speak of freedom and justice, were people who owned enslaved Africans.

For example, James Madison known as the “Father of The Constitution,” owned over 100 slaves and refused to free them even after his death. He was also the man who proposed the Three-Fifths Compromise, which counted slaves as three fifths of a person for the purposes of taxation and legislative representation.

Even Thomas Jefferson, who owned the most slaves out of all of the American presidents with an astounding 600 Africans, has been romanticized as a man “who fell in love with his slave Sally Mae Hemings.”

Enslaved Africans, who were female, didn’t get to give consent to their owners and the children from those forced sexual encounters were born into slavery as well. This wasn’t a “love story” but rather a story of an insidiously brutal reality for many enslaved women during that time.

There is no denying that slavery is a hard history built on violence, white supremacy and inhumanity. It’s time that it is taught in a way that details the horrors once lived by Blacks in this country, yet still shapes the way Blacks are treated today. But the narrative should be told in its entirety.

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