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My 1655 Project


1st October, 2020

Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland / Public domain

Anthony Johnson (b.c. 1600-1670) was a black Angolan known for achieving wealth in the early 17th-century Colony of Virginia. He was one of the first African American property owners and had his right to legally and permanently own a black slave for life recognized by the Virginia courts.

Johnson, himself, was handed over to Portuguese slave traders in modern Angola in 1621 most likely by black slave traders and sold as an indentured servant in Virginia known as Antonio in the local census. Shortly after this, in 1622, he was one of only five survivors of an Indian massacre in which 52 colonists were killed by Powhatan Indians. Johnson’s indenture meant that he was contracted for several years to work to pay for the privilege and cost of his forced passage across the Atlantic. The indenture system was applied in exactly the same way to white servants who came to the New World. Receiving board and lodging, they worked to pay their passage for a set number of years before they were freed from their contractual obligations. Thus, Johnson and his wife Mary earned their freedom after several years.

Once freed around 1635 and thereafter having the status of a ‘free negro,’ Johnson used the ‘Headright system’ to acquire land from the colony. This system granted 50 acres of land to the owners of indentured servants. Johnson bought the contracts of four white and two black servants for this purpose. One of the black servants was his own son Richard Johnson who Anthony contracted to get more land. The other black servant was called John Casor.

In 1653, Casor claimed his indenture had expired in 1646, having been acquired in the early 1640s. A neighbour, Robert Parker, intervened, persuaded Johnson to free Casor and offered him work. Johnson sued Parker in the Northampton Court in 1654 for the return of Casor. The court initially found in favour of Parker, but Johnson appealed. In 1655, the court reversed its ruling. Finding that Johnson still ‘owned’ Casor, the court ordered that he be returned to Johnson with the court dues paid by Parker.

Although black and white indentured servants had been reduced to lifelong slavery in earlier times (see, for example, the 1640 case of John Punch who received lifetime servitude as punishment for escaping), this was the first instance of a judicial determination in the Thirteen Colonies holding that a person who had committed no crime could be held for servitude for life.

In these early days free black colonists like Johnson enjoyed ‘relative equality’ with white colonists and twenty of them owned their own homes. Things changed in 1662 when, contrary to English Common Law which held that the children of English subjects took the status of their father, the Virginia Colony passed a law that children in the colony were born with the social status of their mother, according to the Roman principle of partus sequitur ventrum. This meant that the children of slave women were born into lifetime slavery, even if their fathers were free.

In spite of this history the 1619 Project, by New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, claims that ‘America was founded on slavery’ when a Dutch Privateer limped into Jamestown harbor in August of 1619. The privateer had attacked and pillaged a Portuguese slaver headed to Mexico and traded their ‘human booty’ for rope, pitch and lumber to repair their ship and food to continue their journey. However, the black slaves they traded were presumably freed when their indenture was fulfilled as any European would have been who couldn’t pay their passage to the New World. Hannah-Jones also conveniently skips the history of Johnson, the African who may have done more than any American to institute chattel slavery in the US colonies.

Postscript: Johnson later became a successful tobacco planter in Maryland. His estate, known as Tories Vineyards, was a 300 acre plot leased for 99 years. Johnson has been referred to as ‘the black patriarch’ of the first community of Negro property owners of America. When he died in 1670, his plantation was given to a white colonist, not to Johnson’s children (I’m unclear why a leasehold would be valuable and transferable on death). A judge ruled that he was ‘not a citizen of the colony’ because he was black. In 1677, his grandson, John Jr., purchased a 44 acre farm which he named Angola. John Jr. died without leaving an heir and by 1730 the Johnson family had vanished from the historical record.

Bradley K Hillestad is a curmudgeonly observer of history from Tomah, Wisconsin

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