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Monday, February 11, 2019

FACT CHECK! Gayle King: You are wrong, VA Gov Northam is right - 1st Africans in US were not slaves!

Gayle King's CBS News interview with embattled Virginia Governor Ralph Northam gave way to conflict fast. After Gayle King asked him: "Where would you like to begin?"

Ralph Northam began: "If you look at Virginia 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 Fort Monroe, and while ..."

At this point Gayle King interrupts him to say: "Also known as slaves."

So, what are the facts of the matter? What was the status of the first Africans that landed in Virginia? Are indentured servants the same as slaves?

As we say in the tech world "Google is your friend." So with the help of Google, let's start with the first question last, the one provoked by King's "correction" of Northam.

When I Google "first Africans in america," I get this summary from African Americans - Wikipedia:
The first recorded Africans in British North America (including most of the future United States) were "20 and odd negroes" who came to Jamestown, Virginia via Cape Comfort in August 1619 as indentured servants.
It's almost like Northam was reading from Wikipedia. So who's right, Northam and Wikipedia, or Gayle King and CBS News, and does it matter?

Digging further, Wikipedia cites: Grizzard Jr., Frank E.; Smith, D. Boyd (2007). Jamestown Colony: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO. p. 198. ISBN 978-1-85109-637-4.

The link on Grizzard gives us this background:
Frank E. Grizzard Jr., is an American historian, writer, and documentary editor. He was born in 1954 in Emporia, Virginia, graduating from Greensville County High School in 1971. He earned B.A. degrees in history and religious studies from the Virginia Commonwealth University, and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in history from the University of Virginia. His doctoral dissertation, Documentary History of the Construction of the Buildings at the University of Virginia, 1817–1828 dead link], consisting of a lengthy narrative and more than 1,750 documents chronicling the construction of Thomas Jefferson's architectural masterpiece, the Academical Village, became the first electronic dissertation to be placed online when it was completed in 1996. The dissertation was tagged in the Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) while Grizzard was a fellow at the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Technologies in the Humanities (IATH).
So he seems very solid, although there are many sources for what Wikipedia regards as the facts of the matter. [See for example: The Misguided Focus on 1619 as the Beginning of Slavery in the U.S. Damages Our Understanding of American History, Michael Guasco, Smithsonian.com]  But are indentured servants and slaves essentially the same thing, and was King interrupting to make the point that Northam was avoiding calling them slaves? That's what it seemed like to me.

Again we turn to Google, the search is for "indentured servants vs slaves."
Question: How were indentured servants different from slaves?

Answer: Servants typically worked four to seven years in exchange for passage, room, board, lodging and freedom dues. While the life of an indentured servant was harsh and restrictive, it wasn't slavery. There were laws that protected some of their rights.
This is from the PBS History Detectives page on Indentured Servants In The U.S., and it goes on to speak directly to the question at hand:
In 1619 the first black Africans came to Virginia. With no slave laws in place, they were initially treated as indentured servants, and given the same opportunities for freedom dues as whites. However, slave laws were soon passed – in Massachusetts in 1641 and Virginia in 1661 –and any small freedoms that might have existed for blacks were taken away.
This is an extremely important FACT about American history. It is one that Gayle King and CBS News, either through their own ignorance, or their desire to keep us ignorant, is trying to obscure.

Ralph Northam, the Governor of Virginia, knows:

The first Africans that came to the US were not slaves!

That legal status didn't even exist yet. That came much later, mid-century. There were no "white people" in the US either in 1619, at least nobody was calling themselves "white" yet. That also came much later in the 1600's, concurrent with the abandonment of indentured servitude for all, and the adoption of racial slavery.

The History Detectives need to do a little investigating, and revise the above statement by replacing "white" with "English," because if they go back in a time machine to 1619, and start asking about "white people," the Virginians won't have a clue what they are talking about. Not only was this a time before slaves in Virginia, this was a time before Virginians were divided into "black" and "white" people.

The phrase "white people" had only been invented in 1613, just 6 years earlier in a London play named "The Triumphs of Truth," by Jacobean playwright Thomas Middleton. Ironically for our current discussions, it was first uttered by an English actor in blackface playing an African king. He looks out over the audience and says
I see amazement set upon the faces/Of these white people, wond’rings and strange gazes.
It would be another 50 years before the phrase began to be widely used. In 1619, there were no slaves in Virginia. There were no "white people" or "black people" in Virginia yet. English and Africans worked together, played together, and even freely intermarried. Racism had to be taught, ground in really, and that came later. Everyone that was here legally was an indentured servant or free. All indentured servants where bonded for a given number of years, after which they would be released from bondage and given their "freedom dues." This might include a little land, and the former bondsman might become so successful at farming that they might start importing bonded servants on his own and competing with his former master for the available fertile land. Even Africans could follow that route and a number became so successful in their own right that they had their own bondsmen.

Even as late as 1676, three-quarters of all the bondmen in Virginia were European. Governor Berkeley, one of the first governors of Virginia, estimated that about 1,500 European chattel bond-laborers arrived in Virginia that year, "the majority English, with a few Scots and fewer Irish."

However, labor unrest was growing, and it was proving increasingly difficult to keep everyone in chains. There was an economic crisis in Virginia in the last half of the 17th century that brought to the fore the class differences between the working poor and a handful of "grantees." African and European laborers fought together, often with arms, against the colonial powers and the landowners.

In Virginia there were at least 10 popular or servile revolts between the 1663 Servants’ plot for an insurrectionary march to freedom, to the tobacco riots of 1682. In Bacon’s Rebellion, 1676, an army of European and African bond-servants and freedman recently “out of their time” captured and burned the colonial capital of Jamestown, which Governor Berkeley left in a hurry. It took 1100 British troops sent from England in 11 ships to put him back, and they took a while to get there.

Nathaniel Bacon confronts Governor William Berkeley at the Statehouse in Jamestown
This class struggle accelerated the move towards African slavery. Karl Marxwrote about why the colonial capitalists turned to this indentured servitude labor system, and why even it was failing, in Capital, Vol. 1:
It avails him nothing, if he is so cunning as to import from Europe, with his own capital, his own wage-workers. They soon “cease... to be labourers for hire; they... become independent landowners, if not competitors with their former masters in the labour-market.”[15] Think of the horror! The excellent capitalist has imported bodily from Europe, with his own good money, his own competitors! The end of the world has come! No wonder Wakefield laments the absence of all dependence and of all sentiment of dependence on the part of the wage-workers in the colonies. On account of the high wages, says his disciple, Merivale, there is in the colonies “the urgent desire for cheaper and more subservient labourers — for a class to whom the capitalist might dictate terms, instead of being dictated to by them...." 
The solution the colonial capitalists came up with was racial slavery. The History Detectives put it this way:
As demands for labor grew, so did the cost of indentured servants. Many landowners also felt threatened by newly freed servants demand for land. The colonial elite realized the problems of indentured servitude. Landowners turned to African slaves as a more profitable and ever-renewable source of labor and the shift from indentured servants to racial slavery had begun.
This history is extremely important for us to understand if we are to ever overcome racism in country. There was a period before racism, as we have come to know it, even existed.

There was a period in US history when English and African "slaves," shall we say, lived, labored and revolted together.  Those first 20 Africans that landed in Virginia were not slaves, they had the same legal status as the English, Irish and Scots that arrived in chains in much greater numbers that year. VA Governor Ralph Northam know this history, but CBS News would prefer that you didn't. I think that is why Gayle King interrupted the Governor.

See also:
The hidden meaning of Northam's racist yearbook photo, 2 February 2019
If Ralph Northam has to resign, why is Donald Trump still in office?, 5 February 2019
How the "Northam" redefinition of blackface serves white supremacy, 6 February 2019

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