I learned today that Virginia Governor Ralph Northam is actually more clueless than he appears.
Gayle King of CBS News interviewed Northam on Sunday, beginning by asking, “I know this has been a very difficult week for you in the state of Virginia. So where would you like to begin?
Northam replied, “Well it has been a difficult week. And you know if you look at Virginia's history, 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 call now Fort Monroe…”
Yes, the governor of Virginia referred to slaves as “indentured servants!”
Now, based on some reading of history, he might be technically correct. According to Encyclopedia Virginia, “Indentured servants were men and women who signed a contract by which they agreed to work for a certain number of years in exchange for transportation to Virginia and, once they arrived, food, clothing, and shelter. Adults usually served for four to seven years and children sometimes for much longer, with most working in the colony's tobacco fields.”
In 1619, when, as the governor pointed out, these first black Africans came to Virginia, there were no slave laws in place. Some historians believe that some of the first blacks who arrived in Virginia were already slaves, while others say they were taken into the colony as indentured servants.
So, what about these first black Africans?
According to Encyclopedia Virginia they had been captured in a Spanish-controlled area of West Central Africa and transported aboard the Portuguese ship São João Bautista bound for Mexico. But before they got to Mexico they were stolen by two English ships and brought to Virginia to be sold. The fact that they were “captured,” "stolen" and "sold" pretty says it all; they clearly were slaves. And, I’m pretty sure they didn’t sign a work contract in exchange for this trip.
But wait, there’s more from the clueless governor.
Talking about the progress Virginia has made regarding race he said, “…we have made a lot of progress in Virginia, slavery has ended, schools have been desegregated, we have ended the Jim Crow laws, provided easier access to voting...”
Whoa Dixie! Just to be clear, governor:
- Slavery ended in Virginia not because of something Virginia did but when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation declaring, "that all persons held as slaves" within the rebellious states "are, and henceforward shall be free," and finally after the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery in the U.S.;
- Brown v. Board of Education was the Supreme Court case that outlawed segregation in schools in 1954;
- The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, abolished the Jim Crow laws. by outlawing discrimination in any type of public accommodation;
- The Voting Rights Act of 1965, protected black people’s right to vote by barring discriminatory voting laws.
And what specifically of Virginia’s progress on these issues?
According to the University of Virginia’s Digital Resources for American History, “The leading white politicians and public men of Virginia resisted the change and fought to maintain Virginia's system of segregated education by closing down several public schools. The struggle to find a workable path towards school desegregation in Virginia would continue for more than a decade after the Brown decision.”
By 1964, only 5 percent of black students in Virginia were attending integrated schools. It took the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which denied federal funds to schools determined to be resisting integration, to result in a bit more compliance by Virginia schools reports the Virginia Museum of History & Culture.
And with the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to alter the Voting Rights Act, Virginia put in place photo-identification laws that work to suppress the black vote.
Despite Northam’s appalling lack of knowledge of Virginia’s history and his equivocation on the black face/KKK medical school yearbook photo, he told King he’s, “not going anywhere," going on to say, "I have thought about resigning, but I've also thought about what Virginia needs right now. And I really think that I'm in a position where I can take Virginia to the next level."
If he's not going away, there is a way Northam, as governor, can help bring Virginia to the next level: require every student in the state to take a class in the history of slavery, segregation and discrimination in Virginia. And take the class himself before he disgraces himself further. But I can't help but think, even if he "smartens up" on his history, this guy is only part way through his ignominy.