A First for Us

Published:February 15, 2019 by Brendan Wolfe

Last night may have been a first in the history of Encyclopedia Virginia: our resource appeared onscreen during one of the late-night shows. Trevor Noah of the Daily Show quoted from our entry on indentured servants, highlighting the section in a graphic, with our new logo and everything—all as part of a clip that skewered Governor Ralph Northam for his recent conflation of African slaves and servants.

Sometimes the news happens in such a way that information the public yawned at a week ago has suddenly become indispensable. The Princeton history professor Rhae Lynn Barnes experienced that. When Northam admitted to having worn blackface, her research turned ultra-relevant, leading her to publish a fascinating account in the Washington Post and to appear on our sister program BackStory.

When Northam suggested, in an interview with Gayle King of CBS News, that Africans first came to Virginia in 1619 as indentured servants, it was our turn to fill in some blanks. According to our entry on the subject, most historians believe those Africans were enslaved. They were not given contracts upon their arrival, but instead were sold. And while chattel slavery was not yet written into Virginia law, it had existed in North America for more than a century and was hardly foreign to the Englishmen at Jamestown.

Journalists setting out to quickly inform themselves of current scholarship on these issues found Encyclopedia Virginia, and we were cited in a number of outlets, including

And Eugene Robinson, of the Washington Post, even mentioned us during an appearance on the MSNBC show Morning Joe.

We’re thrilled by the attention and hope you all will keep reading. Also know that there are rarely easy answers when it comes to tough historical questions. Historians have been arguing for years about the status of those first Africans. And there likely were, in fact, black indentured servants in the early days of the Virginia colony. These men and women were the exceptions rather than the rule—the more fortunate ones, you could say.