As embattled Virginia Governor Ralph Northam (D) starts his “I’m sorry” tour in an apparent move to solidify his comments against resignation in the wake of racist photos in his 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook, and his subsequent press conference gaffes, he appeared with Gayle King of “CBS This Morning” to discuss race in an attempt to rehabilitate his image. Beginning to speak about his blackface scandal, Northam botched the beginning of the interview by calling slaves brought to colonial America “indentured servants.”
“If you look at Virginia’s history, we’re now at the 400-year anniversary…in 1619, the first indentured servants from Africa landed on our shores,” Governor Northam said.
“Also known as slavery,” King prodded.
“Yes,” Northam said.
With no “slave laws” in place in the early 17th Century, Africans brought to the colonies, according to a PBS historical report, were initially treated as indentured servants, and were given the same opportunities for freedom as whites were owed. However, as white landowners became threatened by the newly-freed servants’ demand for land and other stipulations promised to them upon their arrival, the shift from indentured servitude to racial slavery began.
In a report from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation stated that 1640 to 1660 marked “the critical period” of slave laws passed in Virginia, with the custom becoming law and the “status changed to ‘servant for life.’”
An entry from a letter penned by then-secretary of the Virginia colony John Rolfe at the time Africans were first shipped to the American continent stated:
“There, ‘20. and odd Negroes’ from the English ship White Lion were sold in exchange for food and some were transported to Jamestown, where they were sold again, likely into slavery.”
Furthermore, from 1660 to 1680, slave laws further restricted the freedoms of Africans brought to the colonies and legalized “different treatment for blacks and whites.” Between 1680 and 1705, a barrage of additional laws took effect in the Commonwealth that reflected “racism and the deliberate separation of blacks and whites.”
By 1705, “all black, mulatto and Indian slaves” were “considered real property.”
Nevertheless, when asked why he still deserves to lead the Commonwealth, Northam explained, “right now Virginia needs someone who can heal, there’s no better person to do that than a doctor,” bringing up his experience as a pediatric neurologist.
“I’m not going anywhere. I have learned from this. I have a lot more to learn. We are in a unique opportunity,” Northam continued as he now subsequently takes the responsibility of racial reconciliator.
Speaking to what “Virginia needs right now,” the governor added that he is going to work to “take Virginia to the next level” and that “we can stop talking so much and take action,” on what Northam called “a number of inequities” throughout the U.S. and in the Commonwealth.
If Governor Northam spends the rest of his term – which ends in January 2022 – working to regain the confidence of Virginians and clear his image, he cannot be an effective leader. The Office of the Governor is not an apparatus to mount a defensive against one’s own wrongdoings. Virginia still has business to accomplish.