February has been officially designated, recognized by many and even celebrated by some as Black History Month or National African-American History Month. While it is acknowledged in some other countries (most notably Canada and the U.K.), it is primarily devoted to the achievements of African-Americans in the U.S. It will, henceforth, include the historical fact that Barack Hussein Obama became the first African-American president of the United States.
However, early American history also reveals another dramatic first involving a black American.
In truth, it should be considered a joint celebration. We are, in actuality, acknowledging the achievements of both blacks and America. Since we are celebrating the achievements of both, it may be appropriate to begin at the beginning.
Black History remembrance began as Negro History Week in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson, a son of former slaves. The second week of February was chosen in honor of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln (both born in that week), and in 1976 the entire month was declared Black History Month.
Now to the beginning. It is well known that the first colonials arrived on these shores following the settlement of Jamestown by the Virginia Company in 1607. Perhaps what is not so well known is the fact that following the Thirty Years’ War, the European economy was extremely depressed. Consequently, many skilled and unskilled laborers there were without work, and the New World offered hope and a chance for a new future.
According to some reports, one-half to two-thirds of the immigrants who came to the American colonies arrived as indentured servants, and this included some Africans, who arrived in Jamestown in 1619. This distinction is critical; indentured servants were not slaves.
The first blacks to arrive in America were not slaves but indentured servants.
In 1619, all indentured servants (white or black) had specified periods of servitude ranging from four to seven years and received precisely the same treatment and rewards. At the conclusion of their respective periods of servitude, each was entitled to freedom, citizenship and a land grant of 25 to 50 acres. Throughout the early colonial period when all land was held in trust for the king, the basis of land disposition were grants, dispensed by the local government in accordance with the king’s wishes.
Land grants in Virginia were issued in accordance with a particular system. Under this system, every person who paid his own way to Virginia would be entitled to 50 acres of land, known as a “headright.” There was no stigma attached, and all families, black or white, subsequently enjoyed all the rights and privileges of other citizens in the community. A father could indenture a family of four, and since each family member was entitled to 50 acres at the conclusion of the period of servitude, they were given their freedom and the family would qualify for a parcel of 200 acres.
Using this method, one colonist, Anthony Johnson, by indenturing his own family members, was able to secure 250 acres of land. His sons, utilizing the same strategy, gained an additional 650 acres. The Johnsons settled on “Pungoteague Creek” on the Eastern Shore of Virginia and thrived for almost 40 years.
For the indentureds, there were both economic and civic benefits associated with this practice: British law protected the rights of the individual, the master’s power over his indentured servants was limited, and a specific skill must have been taught.
The Virginia Company, however, changed the rules. They would now allow anyone to pay a person’s transportation to the colony in exchange for a period of indentured servitude, subject to certain caveats. Under the new rules, knowledge of a skill of any kind was not included in this contract and whoever paid the cost of passage would receive the 50 acres of land for each passage purchased. Indentured servants would now get nothing but a trip and often found themselves without rights or freedom. As one white indentured servant, Thomas Best, wrote from Virginia in 1623, “My master Atkins hath sold me for 150 pounds sterling like a damned slave.”
Indentured servants, especially whites, could (and often did) slip away, become part of another settlement and simply disappear. A permanent, economically beneficial solution for the elites was sought and implemented.
Note: The Bible points out a common failing and path to social injustice: “The love of money is the root of all evil.” Nothing against money per se, but the love of same precipitates activities that generate misery; not a high endorsement for a concept it is supposed to propagate and undergird. (As an aside, the overwhelming majority thinks the Bible is a religious book designed to promote religion. In actuality, there are seven references to religious/religion in the Bible, and six of them are negative.)
Here, history takes a bizarre turn. When I came upon this one particularly astonishing bit of information, I was flabbergasted.
Part of the problem with facts is they can cause discomfort when they do not conform to our preconceived notions. Not once had I ever heard so much as a whisper of this, and it flew in the face of everything I knew – everybody knew – about the origins of slavery in the English colonies. Talk about political incorrectness!
Remember the aforementioned Anthony Johnson? He raised livestock, prospered and as was customary with prosperous landowners, indenturing one black and several white servants. Johnson had sued in court and won several cases, but one case in particular would set the stage for a dramatic shift in the workforce. There are several reports as to the origin of this landmark case, which would indelibly change the American cultural landscape and impact relationships between blacks and whites for centuries.
One report says John Casor, a black indentured servant, “swindled” Johnson out of the remainder of his servitude. Another says the family convinced Johnson to free Casor. Still another says Casor “convinced” a white neighbor, Robert Parker, that he was being illegally detained. Whatever the reason, Johnson was not satisfied with the status quo and took Casor and Parker to court, alleging that Casor had not been obtained as a servant, but as a slave.
Understand the true significance of this case. Johnson was not suing to have John Casor fulfill some measure of a debt of servitude. Instead, he insisted the court grant his petition that “he had ye Negro for his life.” He was claiming the services of John Casor for the remainder of Casor’s natural life. To my knowledge, there is no earlier record of judicial support given to slavery in Virginia except as a punishment for crime. Anthony Johnson was asking the court to award him John Casor (who had committed no crime) as a slave.
Parker and one other influential landowner, both white, sided with Casor. However, the court ruled for Johnson. In the original language taken from the original documents is the decision of the county court:
“Court of Northampton; Eight Mar, Anno1654:
Whereas complaint was this daye made to ye court by ye humble peticion of Anth. Johnson Negro ag[ains]t Mr. Robert Parker…”
I needed to read it slowly and in modern English:
“Whereas complaint was this day made to the court by the humble petition of Anthony Johnson, Negro, against Mr. Robert Parker that he detains one John Casor, a Negro, the plaintiff’s servant under pretense that the said John Casor is a freeman. The court seriously considering and maturely weighing the premises do find that the said Mr. Robert Parker most unrightly keeps the said Negro John Casor from his rightful master Anthony Johnson, as it appears by the Deposition of Capt. Samuel Goldsmith and many probable circumstances. Be it therefore the Judgment of the court and ordered that said John Casor, Negro, shall forthwith be turned into the service of his said master, Anthony Johnson, and that the said Mr. Robert Parker make payment of all charges in the suit and execution. (Eighth March, Year 1654)”
This is apparently the first legal sanction of slavery (not for a crime) in the New World.
Johnson – who had himself been captured in Angola and brought to America as an indentured servant – was a black man.
From evidence found in the earliest legal documents, Anthony Johnson must be recognized as the nation’s first official legal slaveholder.
The father of legalized slavery in America was a black man.
Do we celebrate that as part of Black History Month?