ralph northam face the nation
Northam refers to slaves as 'indentured servants'
01:39 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Once again, Virginia’s governor caused a nationwide facepalm with race-related comments.

This time, Gov. Ralph Northam told “CBS This Morning” that slaves who landed on the shores of Virginia centuries ago were “indentured servants.”

“In 1619, the first indentured servants from Africa landed on our shores …” he said in an interview Sunday.

The gaffe came as Northam fights to regain public trust after a photo from his medical school yearbook page showed a person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan outfit.

The Democratic governor first said he was in the photo, then said he wasn’t, then admitted to wearing blackface in the 1980s when dressed as Michael Jackson for a dance competition.

This is why blackface is offensive

But three decades later, why is Northam calling slaves “indentured servants?”

“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,” he said in a statement provided to CNN. “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.”

Here’s the nuance: Enslaved Africans first arrived in Virginia in 1619. “Before slavery truly became institutionalized in the colonies, some Africans were sometimes treated more like indentured servants who were freed once their service ended or debt had been paid,” the National Museum of African American History & Culture said.

“However, this changed dramatically in 1641 when Massachusetts became the first British mainland colony to legalize slavery. From that time forward, colonial slave laws became more restrictive, further codifying the institution.”

But as the museum makes clear, they were still slaves – Africans who were brought to these shores against their will, and forced to work without pay.

CNN’s Dan Merica contributed to this report.