Embattled Gov. Ralph Northam asserted Sunday “I’m not going anywhere,” but he sparked controversy anew by referring to the first Africans brought to Virginia in 1619 as “indentured servants.”
Northam appeared to be making a technical distinction — Virginia’s key laws regarding slavery were passed after 1640 — but some of the state’s African-American lawmakers thought his comments appeared to minimize the degradation imposed on Virginia’s early Africans.
In an interview Sunday morning at the Executive Mansion, shown on the CBS program “Face the Nation,” Northam began by noting that this year is a pivotal 400-year anniversary for Virginia.
“Well, it has been a difficult week,” Northam said. “And — and, you know, if you look at Virginia’s history we’re now at the 400-year anniversary, just 90 miles from here in 1619 the first indentured servants from Africa landed on our shores in Old Point Comfort, what we call now Fort Monroe.”
CBS interviewer Gayle King interjected: “Also known as slavery.”
“Yes,” Northam said.
Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, an African-American, tweeted after the interview: “But he’s supposed to lead a conversation and fight for equity. Miss me with all that B.S.”
Among those retweeting Bourne’s comment was Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, another member of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.
In a phone interview, Bourne said: “Referring to the Africans who arrived here in 1619 as ‘indentured servitude’ is not how I would describe it.”
The first Africans arrived in Virginia at Point Comfort on the James River in late August 1619, according to Encyclopedia Virginia, produced by Virginia Humanities, in partnership with the Library of Virginia.
“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,” the entry said, citing a letter written by John Rolfe, secretary of the Virginia colony.
According to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1640 to 1660 marked “the critical period” of slave laws passed in Virginia, as custom became law and “status changed to ‘servant for life.’”
It says that from 1660 to 1680 slave laws further restricted blacks’ freedom and legalized “different treatment for blacks and whites.” Between 1680 and 1705, a host of additional laws took effect in Virginia that reflected “racism and the deliberate separation of blacks and whites.”
By 1705, “all black, mulatto and Indian slaves” were “considered real property.”
Several members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, including its chairman, Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, could not immediately be reached for comment on Sunday.
Northam told CBS that he had thought about resigning amid calls from Democrats and Republicans for him to step down.
“Virginia needs someone that can heal. There’s no better person to do that than a doctor,” said Northam, a pediatric neurologist. “Virginia also needs someone who is strong, who has empathy, who has courage and who has a moral compass. And that’s why I’m not going anywhere.”
The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus first called for Northam to resign on Feb. 1, the day the governor said: “I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did” in a 1984 yearbook photo that featured one man in blackface and another man in Ku Klux Klan robes.
The next day, after Northam walked back his statement at a news conference, saying he was not in the photo, the caucus issued a new statement, amplifying its call for Northam to resign.
The latest flare-up came as Virginians continued to sort through simultaneous scandals that have made the state’s leaders the subject of ridicule on late night talk shows and on “Saturday Night Live.”
Days after he called for Northam to resign, Attorney General Mark Herring admitted on Wednesday that he had worn blackface while dressing as a rapper at a college party in 1980. On Friday, a second woman came forward and accused Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax of sexual assault, prompting mass calls for the lieutenant governor to resign.