How Northam’s indentured servant remark sparked a conversation about what we learn in school

Textbooks published after World War 2 painted Virginia in a more positive light, according to the Library of Virginia. Photo by Erin Edgerton.

Emma NorthContributing Writer

Embattled Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who is already engulfed in a race-related scandal, did nothing to quell his detractors last week when he called the first Africans to arrive to North American shores indentured servants on national television.

The incident subsequently ignited a conversation about what students are taught about slavery in their textbooks. Many people on social media said they remember an education that characterized slavery as indentured servitude or other watered-down classifications.

Northam intended to use the interview with Gayle King on CBS’s “Face the Nation” to subdue the furor over the discovery of a racist photo on his 1984 yearbook page earlier this month. But he began the session by mentioning that 2019 is the 400-year anniversary of Africans being brought to Virginia against their will. The governor said these Africans arrived as indentured servants, before King interrupted, saying “also known as slavery,” and Northam agreed.  

Many took to social media to denounce the governor for this label.

“Obviously, @GovernorVA hasn’t learned anything, so let me help: Servants agreed (emphasis on agreed) to work for 4-7 years in exchange for transportation to the colonies,” tweeted Vox Media host Shermichael Singleton. “Slaves were brought to America against their will, which means they were forced.”

Northam then gave a statement to CBS saying a historian had advised him that the term “indentured servant” was more historically accurate.

“The fact is, I’m still learning and committed to getting it right,” Northam said.

Jeffery Wilson, chair of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee at VCU’s School of Education, said Northam could bounce back from the statement.

“It’s interesting how it takes an incident for a person to really reflect and understand,” Wilson said. “This is a teachable moment for everybody.”

Slave laws were not enacted in Virginia until 1661, according to the Library of Congress.

The first black Africans in Virginia arrived in 1619, when there were no slave laws in place. According to Encyclopedia Virginia, the first 20 or so Africans arrived at Point Comfort and those that were brought to Jamestown were likely sold into slavery.

According to the Library of Virginia, the Standards of Learning “led to the publication of a new generation of textbooks that included more social and cultural history and enhanced treatment of economic and demographic history, women, African Americans, and Indians.”

But textbooks published after World War II painted Virginia in a more positive light, according to the Library of Virginia. Virginia issued three textbooks that gave made the Confederacy appear favorable and left out parts of the state’s socially and culturally transgressive history.

“When you know something, and that’s all you’ve been exposed to, that’s how it becomes generational and how kids pick up on it,” Wilson said.

One of the three state-commissioned textbooks from this period was, “Virginia: History, Government, Geography.”

One of the book’s reviewers on Amazon, identified as Carol Watkins, wrote, “I was right! My eighth-grade textbook really was as racist as I had remembered.”

Wilson said that it can be difficult to educate on diversity because of previously formed stereotypes and these stereotypes can lead a cycle of oppression. “We all stereotype, it’s about being able to talk about it and own up to it,” Wilson said.

Virginia textbooks are given a rating of either adequate, limited, or no evidence in multiple categories addressing specific curriculum standards. Most Virginia history textbooks have received adequate ratings in all categories by the Virginia Department of Education, with the exception of the McGraw Hill textbook, “Virginia Social Studies: Virginia Studies,” which was rated as “limited” under the “Materials present content in an accurate and unbiased manner” criteria.

Wilson said there is still room for improvements on how race and diversity is dealt with in education.

The state history curriculum under the Standards of Learning says that Portuguese sailors captured African men and women from what is present-day Angola and that it is unknown if the captured Africans were considered slaves or servants once they arrived to Virginia in 1619.

“Diversity still is one of those things where there is some caution,” Wilson said. “The defense mechanism goes up when you’re responding and even teaching.”

Project 1619 is an initiative to honor the first Africans to arrive in British controlled North America. The website states the Africans were treated as indentured servants but without a written contract. Without these contracts their freedom was at the mercy of their plantation owner which meant most them had to work close to 20 years before they were freed.

Wilson said he thinks most of today’s K-12 students are willing to question the information they’re given and not take anything at face value.

“This generation is kind of unique, unlike past generations they are not as conformist, they will challenge things,” Wilson said. “This generation, you couldn’t sell them that the Civil War was about states rights and not about slavery.”

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