Generational Slavery comes to America (Part Seven: The Move to Generational Slavery)

At the beginning of this narrative (Part One), I stated that there were free Africans that had enslaved other Africans in the Americas.  How that happened is a fascinating story – it was sanctioned by the Virginia courts of the time.  It was a slow process-drip, drip, drip.  Slavery as we have come to know it (here in the U.S. of A.),  did not really begin in 1619 unless one considers an indentured servant as a slave. Yes, those first Africans brought to Jamestown were bought and enslaved by their captors, but they were not enslaved as we have come to know it.

But being an indentured servant has an end date.  History .com states that these Africans were forced into servitude and therefore fit the enslaved definition as declared in  “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”  “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a milestone document in the history of human rights. Drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world, the Declaration was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948 (General Assembly resolution 217 A) as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations”.

What is fascinating in all of this is the English of the times believed it was OK to enslave non-Christians or those taken in a “just war.”    Under this premise it was ok to enslave Africans and Indians (Native American). This conundrum presented a problem to the English, because one could learn English and change their religion to Christianity.  If that happen the enslaved person had to be released from bondage .  This same premise was part of the Spanish idea on slavery.  If the enslaved person converted to the Catholic religion, s/he could no longer be enslaved.

But being a slave in the Southern United States had no end date. However, an indentured servant has an end date.   A Virginia Law Suit by Anthony Johnson, a free African, changed all of that and appeared to be part of the march to generational slavery.  You might ask  or should ask, “Who was Anthony Johnson?”  Based upon the history website website two Africans (Antonio and Isabella)  who were on the White Lion became servants to the Commander of Point Clear (today known as Hampton Roads).

However, PBS states that court records of the time shows that Antonio was brought to the colonies in 1621 and was listed in the Virginia Census as “Antonio the Negro.”  It is interesting to note, that the colonist did not use last names for people of color they were Antonio the Negro, Samuel the Negro, Mary a Negro, etc.  In either case, Antonio the Negro gained his freedom/ended his servitude and became a free man.  Antonio the Negro eventually becomes Antonio Johnson and is important in the march to perpetually slavery  Court records show that Antonio Johnson had purchased his first property in 1640.  By 1650 Antonio was fairly well off even owning indentured servants of his own.

“In 1640, the year Johnson purchased his first property, three servants fled a Virginia plantation. Caught and returned to their owner, two had their servitude extended four years. However, the third, a black man named John Punch, was sentenced to “serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural life.” He was made a slave.  All we really know from this time period is that some Africans were free and others were probably slaves or servants” (4).

The case involving John Punch was decided on July 9.  The three indentured servants, working in Virginia, belonged to Hugh Gwyn.   Captured in Maryland “Victor, a Dutchman and James Gregory “a Scotchman” not only had their servitude extended, they were also whipped.  Scholars have noted that the difference in punishment between the two Europeans and the African was the first legal distinction made by the Virginia courts between Europeans and Africans (5).

The John Punch ruling appears to have set the stage for Antonio Johnson to become the first Black slaveowner in the Colonies.  In 1654, “John Casor Negro” an indentured servant to Antonio Johnson ran away to Robert Parker, one of Johnson’s neighbors.  Casor claimed that Johnson Casor argued that he was an indentured servant and that Johnson was keeping him as a slave..  On March 8, 1655, “the North Hampton County court ruled in favor of Anthony Johnson a free man of African descent,” The court ruling basically sanctioned lifetime ownership of an indentured slave (6).

The court order Parker to return Casor and to pay court cost.  Racial identity didn’t appear to be an issue in the ruling since both men were of African descent. Instead it appears the ruling was based upon Johnson’s status as “a law-abiding landowner.” (7, 8).

As I stated earlier, my goal was to trace how this country (US of A) got its start into generational slavery.  This is not a scholarly work. but a means to satisfy my own curiosity – a curiosity sparked by my grandmother’s letter to her daughter, my Aunt Bonnie.  I have provided reference in my writings so those of you who might be interested, can follow my path and extend knowledge of how we got here.

Reference 7 links provide the timeline from indentured servant to generational slavery.  I will list a few of the timeline rulings.

March 1660–March 1661 – The General Assembly passes a law entitled “English running away with negroes” that adds years of service, in addition to the normal penalty, to runaway white servants captured with blacks.

September 1663 – The General Assembly passes a law directing masters to limit the movement of their slaves and servants, especially on days off. Lawmakers worry that when given freedom of movement, slaves and servants are more likely to run away or rise up.

October 1670 – The General Assembly revises a law from the previous year establishing a large reward for anyone who captures a runaway slave or servant. A reward of a thousand pounds of tobacco is reduced to two hundred pounds. Repeat offenders are directed to keep their “haire close cut.”

October 1705 – The General Assembly passes “An Act Concerning Servants and Slaves,” which summarizes previous laws defining bound labor in Virginia. It makes distinctions between the treatment of white “Christian” indentured servants and non-white, non-Christians, allowing for the killing of slaves in various situations without penalty.

It should be noted that early Africans in Virginia were not slaves but indentured servants.  That all changed with the slave laws of the 1660s and 1670s.  Prior to this time there were no colonial laws authorizing enslavement.

“The first comers were slaves in the hands of their maritime sellers; but they were not fully slaves in the hands of their Virginia buyers, for there was neither law nor custom then establishing the institution of slavery in the colony.

The documents of the time point clearly to a vague tenure.  In the county records prior to 1661 the negroes are called negro servants or merely negroes —-never, it appears definitely slaves” (7).

Although legal slavery was not codified into law, the 1640s and 1650s saw the decades march towards negroes becoming de facto slaves.  Of course there has been quite the debate as to whether the early Africans in Virginia where indentured servants or enslaved persons who gained their freedom through manumission.

Before the law of 1662,  mulatto children with white fathers or the children of emancipated slaves  obtain the societal status from the father.  The 1662 law made status of these people dependent upon the mother.  Before 1662 property was handed down to the son of the male of the family.  If the mother was Black, then the child was Black and therefore could not inherit the father’s property, if the father was White.

8. Selling Poor Steven, Phillip Burnham, American Legacy; The Magazine of African-American History & Culture, Summer 2003, Volume 9/Number 2, p44
9. The Origins Debate: Slavery and Racism in Seventeenth-Century Virginia