Virginia Gov. Responds to Backlash for Calling Slaves 'Indentured Servants': 'I'm Still Learning'

Northam said he is "still learning and committed to getting it right"

VA Governor Northam Holds Press Conference To Address Racist Yearbook Photo
Photo: Alex Edelman/Getty

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is facing backlash yet again after he referred to slaves as “indentured servants” in a recent interview.

Northam — who is already facing mounting pressure to step down after becoming embroiled in a racist photo scandal — was on CBS This Morning earlier this week when he told host Gayle King that the slaves who came to Virginia from Africa in the 17th century were “indentured servants.”

“We are 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 now call Fort Monroe,” he said.

The Democrat was quickly interrupted by King, who clarified that said “servants” were actually slaves.

In response to the comment, some used social media to express their disgust.

“Words like ‘Indentured servant’ is how people try to erase the pain and horrors of slavery. It is how they think it harmless to wear blackface. @RalphNortham is done. If he won’t resign, he needs to be forced out,” author Julissa Arce tweeted.

Responding to the new wave of backlash, the politician said in a statement to CBS News that he recently spoke on the matter at an event, and in that instance, referred to the Africans as “enslaved.” He claimed that he changed his terminology upon receiving advice from a historian.

“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,” the statement read. “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.”

According to the National Museum of African American History & Culture, slaves were “sometimes” treated more like indentured servants — whose negotiated contracts determined an end to their service in advance — prior to 1641, when Massachusetts became the first colony to legalize slavery.

Northam — a physician and former State Senator who was sworn into office last month — has repeatedly declared his intentions to remain the governor of Virginia, despite intense fallout over a yearbook photo featuring a man in blackface and a man wearing a KKK robe.

“Virginia needs someone that can heal. There’s no better person to do that than a doctor. 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,” Northam told King, adding that he’s on a “learning curve” and has changed in the years since the photo was taken.

The photograph appeared on Northam’s page in the 1984 yearbook for Eastern Virginia Medical School, and was obtained by The Virginian-Pilot.

At first, Northam apologized for the photo.

“Earlier today, a website published a photograph of me from my 1984 medical school yearbook in a costume that is clearly racist and offensive,” he wrote in an initial statement made on the same day the photo was reported. “I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now.”

“I recognize that it will take time and serious effort to heal the damage this conduct has caused. I am ready to do that important work. The first step is to offer my sincerest apology and to state my absolute commitment to living up to the expectations Virginians set for me when they elected me to be their Governor,” he added.

However, Northam then went on to claim that he was not, in fact, either of the people in the photo.

“When I was confronted with the images yesterday I was appalled that they appeared on my page,” Northam said during a press conference on Feb. 2, “but I believe then and now, that I am not either of the people in that photo.”

Also during the press conference, Northam said that he’d “darkened” his face with shoe polish to play Michael Jackson in a dance contest in 1984.

He told King that he was “shocked” to see the blackface photo when it surfaced Feb. 1, but felt as though it happened “for a reason,” and that he was committed to learning from his mistakes.

Related Articles