Is This the 400th Anniversary of Slavery or Indentured Servitude?

Virginia Democratic Governor Ralph Northam has stayed out of the media spotlight since photographs of him posing in blackface or a Klan robe surfaced. In the past few days, however, he has agreed to a couple of interviews including one with CBS anchor Gayle King.

At the outset of the interview the governor references the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans to Virginia’s shores in 1619, only he chose to refer to these slaves as indentured servants. King quickly responded by correcting the governor that he meant to say slavery. My social media streams quickly lit up with reactions to the oversight.

They included some people who suggested that the governor was correct in referring to the first Africans as indentured servants. They noted that a system of African slavery took time to evolve as the primary form of labor in colonial Virginia. This is true. Historians such as Ira Berlin have shown that for much of the seventeenth century African slaves worked side by side Native Americans and even white indentured servants. It was even possible for a small number of Africans to gain their freedom.

The larger question, however, of how Virginia went from – in the words of historian Edmund Morgan, ‘a society with slaves’ to a ‘slave society’ – is separate from the status of the Africans who arrived in 1619. Earlier today historian Rebecca Ann Goetz clarified this question with a twitter thread clarifying that these Africans were indeed slaves.

In fact, it is not just the beginning of slavery that needs to be commemorated. It is the story of how it evolved and why it persisted for close to 250 year. Just as importantly, it is a story about the role that white Virginians played in maintaining a slave society as well as the system of white supremacy that it reinforced and that outlasted it well after 1865.

If anyone needs to understand this it is governor Northam. His performance in blackface or Klan costume is part of this story of how white Virginians continue to maintain and lay claim to their place in a culture of white supremacy.

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25 comments… add one
  • Nora Carrington Feb 10, 2019 @ 15:24

    I’m torn between the tyranny of a zero tolerance policy and the amorality of living in a consequence-free world. Northam is a few years younger than I am; as a Virginian he has had the opportunity to educate himself and come to terms with all his past selves, whomever they turn out to have been. A week is not long enough to do this work, but he could have made a better start than he has.

    • Walt Stawicki Feb 10, 2019 @ 17:55

      agree so much with the zero tolerance or ‘that was then’ mixed feeling.

      Zero tolerance is a slope to kangaroo justice. It is a step from the Terrors of the Fr. Revolution. Dare I say that it sometimes only a lack of a rope away from … Emmett Till?

      Heard a letter over airwaves, from a man just a couple years older who was reminding us that at that time it was not acceptable to do blackface, it was not acceptable to don a hood. I think that is/was true. but not everywhere, remember. And certainly young men, even past grade school tend to push good limits “just because” and with no thought beyond the shock.

      OTOH . per the radio interview., to call the middle passage a free drive to the jobsite? not buying it.Even before it was a slaver state, lets look for contracts. The white, even the Irsih ones, were contracted. documentation of this survives.

      I have to call the gov tone deaf also for his bumbling response that seemed too “deer in the headlamp” for a political figure we want calm and unpanicked deliberation from.

      And at last- morality in a secular age where abortion until the carcass to be is delivered , viable, to its mother, subject only to her view of sanctity versus compassionate termination of a less than perfect progeny….; where is this headed? eugenics started as rational and compassionate for the whole of the society. How easy that slipped here and there. Now I know most who decide on abortion do so regretfully. But laws to accommodate them accomodate others. It is like laws we pass and praise when they give “our side” advantage and then weep and moan when the “other side” gets to use them. There are consequences even in the most anguished abortion. There were great sins even as contracted. indebted servants. To white wash it is not only a stain on history but to ignore the current gig economies abuses. is 3/5rds free enough? 7/8ths? free but only when a husband, father of brother cosigns her contracts?

      • msb Feb 11, 2019 @ 4:06

        “Dare I say that it sometimes only a lack of a rope away from … Emmett Till?”
        Your certainly dared say it, but it is not even in sight of the truth. For example, Northam is a member of the social group in power and an official elected to do the people’s business. Emmet Till was a member of an oppressed social group and was not only a private citizen but a child. And criticism in the press or even potential loss of employment is a great distance away from being murdered: beaten to death.
        Your comments on abortion are of even less interest and veracity – but this is Kevin Levin’s site, and he determines what content is relevant, so I will stop here.

        • Kevin Levin Feb 11, 2019 @ 4:10

          The comparison is ludicrous and I certainly agree with you that the comments re: abortion are off the deep end.

          • Walt Stawicki Feb 11, 2019 @ 5:02

            please read my bove reply. The “comparison” was not a direct one but to tghe wider terrain. The comments on abortion may be “off the deep end” should I apologize for bringing them into the discussion of “morality in a consequence free world.” I regret to say that such a dialogue is underway, “off the deep end or not. So I do not ask pardon for reporting it. I am far too far along to pretend a belief that things are isolated issues and there is no ongoing, changing background connecting them, personal awareness or lack, not withstanding. How will the issue of past sins play out in the world, not in a sheltered online discussion of opinion with a courtlike narrow focus?

            • Kevin Levin Feb 11, 2019 @ 6:11

              Thanks for the follow up. Let’s keep the discussion of abortion out of this discussion. Thank you.

          • Walt Stawicki Feb 11, 2019 @ 5:13

            consider it is his Dem. party calling for resignation on the blackface. what I hear from the right, truely felt or not, is that we should see it as a long time ago and judge him as he now is. But on the late abortion, a currwntt issue, they have no trouble opposing him and working to end his powers. Does that mater to the Dems? win one in past, weaken one in the present? (“We will see.” Korzybski)
            https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/from-abortion-to-blackface-northam-engulfed-in-controversy/2019/02/04/6ad43030-28d4-11e9-906e-9d55b6451eb4_story.html

        • Walt Stawicki Feb 11, 2019 @ 4:54

          I was speaking more generally about the rope. Perhaps your reading is more insulated than mine. I stand by the statement.Im not going to go throuh all the background. I have seen what I have seen.

  • MICHAEL w MASTERS Feb 10, 2019 @ 16:11

    Great comment. would welcome a discussion of when he figured out what he did in college was inappropriate.

    • alonzo quitana Feb 10, 2019 @ 17:52

      “when he figured out what he did in college was inappropriate.” I’m sure Northam did many inappropriate things in college, and perhaps the circumstances surrounding his appearing in “that photo” was one of them. He denies that either feller is him, however, so I suspect that if even if he comes to change his opinion on that score he won’t have much enlightening to say on when “he figured out [it] was inappropriate.”

      • Kevin Levin Feb 11, 2019 @ 1:54

        I am looking forward to hearing how that image ended up on his yearbook page assuming that neither person is Northam.

        • Jalane Schmidt Feb 11, 2019 @ 5:50

          Northam indicated, in his shambolic press conference after this story broke, that he learned in 2017 — from a young African American campaign staffer– why blackface was inappropriate. 2017. Northam hasn’t exactly made it a priority as an adult office holder to learn about racism.

          • alonzo quitana Feb 11, 2019 @ 9:10

            To be clear, Northam’s conversation with his staffer concerned Northam’s Michael Jackson impersonation at the (1984) dance competition – the staffer reportedly sharing with Northam that he found it offensive. This notion was pretty much news to Northam in 2017 — as I imagine it might be for many (most?) folks who aren’t POC; and in fact quite possibly a judgment which is not shared by a fair number of those who are POC. And understandably so, imo. Can there really be much doubt but that there is a world of difference between the “blackface” of “the Northam photo” and a sort-of tribute impersonation of a black figure – which includes black make-up as part of the costume/impersonation ?

        • Joshism Feb 11, 2019 @ 17:47

          “I am looking forward to hearing how that image ended up on his yearbook page assuming that neither person is Northam.”

          Maybe college yearbooks are held to a higher standard, but when I was in high school the yearbook was always riddled with mistakes.

    • HankC Feb 11, 2019 @ 17:30

      This attitude was pretty typical for VMI of his time – cant speak for the med school.

  • Brad Greenberg Feb 11, 2019 @ 8:43

    Until he said that he learned in 2017 why blackface was wrong, I had few problems with Northam. After all, most of us did things when we were younger that we are ashamed to admit now. The key, for me, is what he has done since then. Have has actions as an adult helped or hurt the African American community?

    However, after that statement, i do have an issue. If the statement is true, it could be an indication that there may be more, and more recent, racist incidents in his past. If the statement is false, then why did he feel the need to date his learning about why it was wrong to 2017 as opposed to the time of the picture?

  • Calvin Pearson Feb 11, 2019 @ 11:28

    It’s the 400th anniversary of Africans in North America. It began with 20 and odd Africans being captured and sold at Point Comfort on August 25, 1619. Since slavery was not legalized they were treated as indentured servants who did not have a contract. They freedom was dependent on the plantation owner giving them their freedom. Often times it took 15-20 years. The majority of the first Africans gained their freedom. They were able to marry whites and Native Americans, own land, sell crops, and purchase white indentured servants. That lasted in Virginia until slavery was legalized in 1661. Slavery in Virginia in the early years is not typical of the chattel slavery in the 17th and 18th centuries. There was a big difference. So the 400th anniversary is also about triumph over slavery. It’s about our contributions in building this country. It’s about our contributions to the culture in food, music, the arts, and our role in securing equal rights for all citizens. For more information go to http://www.project1619.org.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 11, 2019 @ 14:35

      Since slavery was not legalized they were treated as indentured servants who did not have a contract.

      I suggest you pick up a book by Ira Berlin and/or Rebecca A. Goetz. They were not treated as indentured servants.

    • Joshism Feb 11, 2019 @ 17:52

      “they were treated as indentured servants who did not have a contract”

      How can one be an indentured servant without having a contract? A contract specifying the nature and length of work required would seem to be a defining characteristic of indentured servitude.

      Being forced to serve someone until your die unless they decide to grant you freedom sure seems like a form of slavery, even if it wasn’t legally defined with that word.

    • Nora Carrington Feb 12, 2019 @ 9:16

      This is the best most nuanced discussion I’ve seen on this topic. Lots of history; history is complicated. Esp. refer you to the comment about the relationship between law and reality: is it aspirational or codifying? Both? Neither?

      https://twitter.com/historianess/status/1094677942863564800

  • Ratherdrive Feb 11, 2019 @ 14:55

    Northam seems to have exhibited inappropriate and offensive behavior in college. While he WAS old enough to know better by that age, he also seems to have fully reformed, baring any evidence to the Contrary.

    We DO want to encourage people who have made errors, to reform, and rejoin society; am I correct? Rather than simply damning them to hell for the rest of time?

    I suppose there mist be at least two or three people who never behaved foolishly even once while in school. May I ask for a show of hands?

  • Joshism Feb 11, 2019 @ 17:45

    “They included some people who suggested that the governor was correct in referring to the first Africans as indentured servants. They noted that a system of African slavery took time to evolve as the primary form of labor in colonial Virginia. This is true. Historians such as Ira Berlin have shown that for much of the seventeenth century African slaves worked side by side Native Americans and even white indentured servants. It was even possible for a small number of Africans to gain their freedom.”

    Just because early slaves were not part of chattel slavery does not stop them from being slaves. For the most part, Spanish colonies in the Americas did not use the chattel slavery system of the Antebellum South and slaves could be granted freedom, but there is no question that they still practiced slavery and the workers in question were slaves / enslaved persons.

  • alonzo quitana Feb 12, 2019 @ 9:03

    fwiw, Trevor Noah had a nice little piece on L’Affaire Northam last night (Monday). imo. https://youtu.be/BPE8shSbz7k

    • Kevin Levin Feb 12, 2019 @ 10:29

      Watched it this morning. Well done.

  • Terry M. Klima Mar 2, 2019 @ 5:01

    There does appear to be evidence that indentured servitude in fact morphed into chattel slavery in colonia Virginia. Specifically, there is a noted Northhampton County Virginia Court Case from 1655 in which an ‘Indentured servant” is ruled to be a slave for life. A transcript case can be found at https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Court_Ruling_on_Anthony_Johnson_and_His_Servant_1655

    Interestingly, PBS included this development in their “Frontline” series “The blurred racial lines if famous families” (WGBH Boston) https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/secret/famous/johnson.html

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