NORFOLK, Va. — In his first TV interview since becoming mired in scandal over a racist yearbook photo, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam stirred another controversy – this one dating back 400 years.

“Just 90 miles from here in 1619, the first indentured servants from Africa landed on our shores in Old Point Comfort, what we call now Fort Monroe,” he said in a nationally televised interview with CBS’s Gayle King on Sunday night.

That’s when King quickly interjected, calling it “slavery.”

Northam said “Yes” and moved on. But commentators did not.

Which is correct?

Indentured servitude is typically defined as temporary, once a way for people to pay off their passage to the New World with a period of work. Slavery, on the other hand, was permanent.

“I would say that this is consistent with what we have seen from Northam over the past two weeks in terms of these responses that are overlooking the anti-black racism that is foundational to slavery and the history of this country” said Allison Page, an assistant professor of media studies at Old Dominion University who studies the representation of slavery in U.S. media culture.

“The larger point: by saying indentured servants, it is softening the reality of the history of slavery,” she said. “Calling people who were enslaved indentured servants keeps erasing this history. … It’s minimizing these atrocities.”

Armed with historical records, historians have changed their interpretations over time, said Julie Richter, interim director of William & Mary’s National Institute of American History and Democracy.

One reason some might use the term indentured servants is because the first law to legalize slavery didn’t appear until 1661, Richter said.

But historians have more and more examined the words used in historical documents between 1619 and 1661, indicating some, if not all, Africans were treated as slaves when they arrived, Richter said.