Were they enslaved, or were they servants?

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam was trying to apologize for having worn blackface when he got roasted over the weekend for saying the first Africans brought to Virginia, in 1619, were “indentured servants."

In an interview that aired Sunday on CBS, anchor Gayle King interrupted: “Also known as slavery.”

By Monday morning, Northam had issued a statement that a historian had told him to use the term indentured servants, and that he was “still learning and committed to getting it right.”

But scholars do not agree on whether those first 20 to 30 Africans, who arrived on the Dutch ship White Lion at Jamestown, were enslaved or indentured.

After more people blasted Northam on news programs and Twitter, others said he was correct, mainly because there was no legal definition of slavery in Virginia until 1661.

In his book, In the Matter of Color, A. Leon Higginbotham, the late federal judge in Philadelphia, wrote that from 1619 to 1660, there was no systematic effort in Virginia “to define broadly the rights or non-rights of blacks.”

“There is sufficient evidence, then, to consider at least the possibility that these first black Jamestown arrivals, as well as many of those blacks who followed them in the next few decades, were treated by the early Jamestown colonists more or less as additions to the already existing social class into which whites had often been pressed — that of indentured servants,” Higginbotham wrote.

“Some scholars have argued that for at least half a century, the status of blacks in America remained incompletely defined — socially somewhere at the bottom of the white servant class perhaps, but nowhere near chattel slaves.”

In fact, Higginbotham wrote, white “masters” feared an alliance between the white and black servants, especially when they joined forces to run away.

In 1640, there was a case of a black man who had run away with two white servants, Higginbotham wrote. The Virginia Governor’s Council sentenced the white men to four additional years of service after their indenture term, but “the third being, a negro named John Punch, shall serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural life. …“

Higginbotham credited work by the historian Helen Tunnicliff Catterall, who had written that the case was one of the earliest in U.S. history where the law made a racial distinction “among indentured servants.”

Others believe the governor is wrong.

Jennifer R. Loux, of Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources, said that in 2015, the state replaced a historic marker that had been erected in 1992 that said it was not known if the first Africans were indentured servants or enslaved. She said a group called Project 1619 had requested the state review the text on the marker based on new scholarship.

This is an updated historic marker approved by the Virginia Board of Historic Resources in 2015. It replaces an earlier marker which said it was unknown if the earliest Africans were indentured servants or enslaved. An English privateer ship, the White Lion, captured the 20 and odd Africans from a Portuguese slave ship. But some of the Africans became free and there was no legal framework for hereditary lifelong enslavement for decades.
Handout
This is an updated historic marker approved by the Virginia Board of Historic Resources in 2015. It replaces an earlier marker which said it was unknown if the earliest Africans were indentured servants or enslaved. An English privateer ship, the White Lion, captured the 20 and odd Africans from a Portuguese slave ship. But some of the Africans became free and there was no legal framework for hereditary lifelong enslavement for decades.

The new marker acknowledges the first Africans arrived at Port Comfort, now known as Fort Monroe, near Hampton, rather than in Jamestown, which had been part of American historical books for centuries. Unlike the old markerm which said it was uncertain if the Africans were indentured servants or slaves, this marker notes that: Many of the earliest Africans were held as slaves, but some individuals became free."

Michael Coard, a lawyer and founding member of Avenging the Ancestors Coalition (ATAC), a Philadelphia advocacy group, said Higginbotham got it wrong.

“With all due respect to Judge Higginbotham, they were clearly enslaved human beings and not indentured servants," Coard said.

“One, the Africans were kidnapped, while the Europeans were voluntary immigrants," Coard said. "The indentured servants had a term [of service]. It was temporary. The Africans were permanently held.”

Like many African American organizations around the country, Coard’s coalition plans to have a service commemorating the first Africans in America, who were captured from Angola and brought to Virginia 400 years ago. The ceremony at the President’s House at Sixth and Market Streets will be at 2 p.m. Aug. 25, the date historians believe the White Lion landed at Port Comfort.