Were the “20. and Odd Negroes” Slaves or Indentured Servants?

jamestownvasign

Is this sign factually correct?

In an interview with Gayle King of CBS News, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam referred to the first enslaved Africans to Virginia in 1619 as “indentured servants.”

Blogger Kevin Levin has a short post on Northam’s comment here.  A taste:

At the outset of the interview the governor references the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans to Virginia’s shores in 1619, only he chose to refer to these slaves as indentured servants. King quickly responded by correcting the governor that he meant to say slavery. My social media streams quickly lit up with reactions to the oversight.

They included some people who suggested that the governor was correct in referring to the first Africans as indentured servants. They noted that a system of African slavery took time to evolve as the primary form of labor in colonial Virginia. This is true. Historians such as Ira Berlin have shown that for much of the seventeenth century African slaves worked side by side Native Americans and even white indentured servants. It was even possible for a small number of Africans to gain their freedom.

The larger question, however, of how Virginia went from – in the words of historian Edmund Morgan, ‘a society with slaves’ to a ‘slave society’ – is separate from the status of the Africans who arrived in 1619. Earlier today historian Rebecca Ann Goetz clarified this question with a twitter thread clarifying that these Africans were indeed slaves.

Read the entire post here.

Rebecca Goetz‘s tweet thread is worth reading.  She is a history professor at New York University and the author of The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race.  Here it is:

Addendum from reader Matt Gottlieb:

While I appreciate the post, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources retired this sign and put in a replacement in 2015. The updated marker includes newer research that emerged since the original’s 1992 installation. An image of it may be seen here: https://www.latimes.com/dp-pictures-african-landing-day-commemorated-on-fort-monroe-20150820-photogallery.html

Please contact me if you have any questions. Physical markers, to borrow the cliche on political polling, are snapshots in time.

Princeton Seminar 2017: Day 3

Burr

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History “Colonial Era” teachers seminar (aka the “Princeton Seminar“) is rolling along.

This morning in the lecture hall we finished our discussion of colonial Virginia. I made the connection between mercantilism and tobacco culture and challenged the teachers to consider the social and cultural influence of tobacco on race, social structure, gender, and labor in the seventeenth century colony. We ended this lecture with an examination of Bacon’s Rebellion.

Midway through the morning session we turned to colonial New England.  We did a lot of background work today.   My lecture developed along these lines:

  • The settlers of New England were Christians
  • The settlers of New England were Protestant Christians
  • The settlers of New England were Calvinist Protestant Christians
  • The settlers of New England were English Calvinist Protestant Christians

We then discussed Winthrop’s idea of a “City Upon a Hill” and how Puritan theology influenced politics and regional identity in Massachusetts Bay.  On Thursday, when we return to New England, I am hoping to say a few words about social life in the region, drawing heavily from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Good Wives.

The teachers spent the afternoon with master teacher Nate McAlister.  He continues to work with the teachers on their lesson plans and the use of primary documents.

After dinner we all headed over to the Princeton Cemetery.  I gave a very brief lecture at the graves of the early Princeton presidents–Aaron Burr Sr., Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Davies, Samuel Finley, and John Witherspoon.  For some reason the grave of Aaron Burr Jr. got more attention than it has in years past. 🙂

We will be in Philadelphia tomorrow with George Boudreau!

Weed

Grace Wisher and the Star Spangled Banner

The good folks at the National Museum of American History have published a post telling the story of Grace Wisher, the 13-year-old African American servant who helped Mary Pickersgill design the Star Spangled Banner which flew over Fort McHenry and inspired Francis Scott Key to write the national anthem of the United States of America.  Here is a taste of Wisher’s story as told by Helen Yuen and Asantewa Boakyewa of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore:

The size of the Star-Spangled Banner and its six-week timeline for completion would have necessitated many people working on the flag, including Mary Pickersgill’s three nieces and Grace Wisher. The household also had an enslaved person, whose name we do not know.
The home where Pickersgill and Wisher lived is now a museum called the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House. It holds a 1962 painting by famed Baltimore artist Robert McGill Mackall. The portrait features the Pickersgill household and the three men who commissioned the garrison and storm flags for Fort McHenry: Commodore Joshua Barney, General John Stricker, and Colonel George Armistead. As a tribute to Wisher, the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House drew in a ghost figure into the painting that represents the young girl. Due to our uncertainty of what she looked like, the placeholder is a traced line, but the recognition is tangible.
A major show inspired by Wisher is now on view at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in Baltimore, Maryland. The exhibition For Whom It Stands: The Flag and the American People chronicles the flag through our nation’s history and culture. Coming full circle, the museum and exhibition are on the same city block where Wisher once lived and sewed the flag. Although none of Wisher’s personal effects are on display there and may have been lost to history, her untold story is a major theme of the show.

Today’s Tea Party History Lesson

Today’s lesson comes from Marilinda Garcia, a Tea Party candidate for Congress from New Hampshire:

When she said that the United States “experiment in collectivism died before the country was founded” I thought she was going to reference the Plymouth Colony. She didn’t go there.  Instead she referenced Jamestown.  Oh boy!
A few comments:
The people of Jamestown did not starve to death because they lacked private property.  They starved to death from disease and because they did not grow food.  They were so busy trying to strike it rich in the mercantile economy by growing exotic crops like silk and dates that they did not grow anything to eat. 
Moreover, if the move toward private property (I am assuming that Garcia is making some vague reference to the Headright System here) brought economic success to the colony, such success was based on the ability of some colonists to get rich on tobacco.  And in order to get rich on tobacco, one needed a lot of servants and slaves.
So here is my revision to Garcia’s history lesson:  the “defining characteristic of America was born” in Jamestown.  All those “innate” geniuses created an American dream for themselves by “experimenting” with indentured servanthood and later slavery.  I think a famous historian once wrote a book about this called American Slavery-American Freedom.
Interesting.

The Obama Slave Ancestor Debate Continues

This week’s edition of the History News Network includes a special forum on the recent research by Ancestry.com claiming that Barack Obama’s family tree on his mother’s side can be traced to a “slave” in colonial Virginia named John Punch.

Honor Sachs’s piece deals with the politics of race and genealogy and the responsibility of the historian to understand slavery, indentured servanthood, and race in the context of the 17th century world in which it was constructed.

Jeffrey Perry, who calls himself an “independent, working-class scholar,” argues that Punch was not an indentured servant because he lacked the paperwork.  When Punch ran away from his master in 1640, he fled with two actual indentured servants.  Perry also notes that neither of these escaped men (one was a “Dutchman” and one was a “Scotchman”) were “white” because the term “white” was not yet a racial category in Virginia.

Pearl Duncan questions whether John Punch was actually the “first” slave in North America.

All of this very interesting debate on DNA and slavery is getting me excited for Annette Gordon-Reed’s upcoming visit to Messiah College in November.