Historians Discuss First Africans in Virginia, Recent Northam Comments
A historian at the University of Virginia talked on Monday about the legal status of Africans when they first arrived in Virginia 400 years ago.
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - One week after a racist yearbook photo on Ralph Northam’s yearbook page at Eastern Virginia Medical School in 1984 surfaced, he is saying he will not resign amid demands for him to step down from his post as governor of Virginia. His answer is causing a stir among people across the country as he tries to move forward after his blackface scandal.
A historian at the University of Virginia talked on Monday about the legal status of Africans when they first arrived in Virginia 400 years ago. Many historians say they are not exactly sure about the legal status of the first Africans to Virginia but they said it is safe to say the first Africans were all enslaved when they arrived at Point Comfort in Virginia.
Fort Monroe National Monument, the site of Point Comfort, says while a lot is not known, the first Africans were brought to Virginia as human cargo on a ship called the White Lion. The crew was on its way back to Europe, but needed to trade Africans for provisions.
Historian Alan Taylor with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation said while most Africans shipped to Virginia were slaves, there were some indentured servants who eventually won their freedom.
“To be an indentured servant was better than to be a slave in that your servitude was shorter,” Taylor said. “It was usually between four and seven years but your condition as a servant during that time was very harsh. You would be worked very hard, whipped, and fed poorly.”
Once granted freedom, those indentured servants were given tools, land, and clothing.
"If they were freed, they usually stayed free, but in the early periods of 1630's to the 1650's, if they became freed, some of them prospered and they obtained their own farms and their plantations and there are a few cases they acquired their own enslaved people," Taylor said.
Northam released a statement on Monday saying he referred to the first Africans as slaves during a visit to Fort Monroe and was advised by a historian that they were instead indentured servants. The governor added that he’s still learning and committed to getting it right.
"During a recent event at Fort Monroe I spoke about the arrival of the first Africans in Virginia 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 also recently said that he plans to focus the remainder of his term as governor on racial equity. Several black leaders in Virginia say they forgive Northam and want to give him a second chance.