A man who would eventually take the Anglicized name, Anthony Johnson, arrived in Virginia in 1622 on a slave ship. He had been captured by Portuguese in Angola as part of their war against that African kingdom. Many of these captured Angolans were urban, literate and Christian, their kingdoms having been Christianized in the previous century. Virginians bought about a dozen of these people from the slavers, including Johnson. He would go on to become an independent farmer and slaveholder in his own right.
Our racial categories and their cultural meanings didn’t always exist. Whiteness and blackness evolved over time to address an economic need. Early 17th century colonists in North America had not yet adopted the concept of chattel slavery or race-based slavery. For that matter, they hadn’t solidified the concept of race itself. Massachusetts’ 1641 slave codes contain language which best explains English attitudes toward the practice:
There shall never be any bond slaverie, villinage or captivitie amongst us unless it be lawfull captives taken in just warres, and such strangers as willingly selle themselves or are sold to us.
Servitude in early 17th century Virginia had emerged out of England’s apprenticeship traditions, in which years of unpaid indenture were the price of training in a trade. Colonial entrepreneurs used a variation of this system to entice potential laborers, offering free land for anyone who completes (reads: survives) their term of servitude. Their stock of unfree labor was augmented by British subjects convicted of crimes, captured in internal wars, or even “kidnapped,” a term coined for young people abducted and sold off to the colonies.
We have lost the significance of land ownership in this context. In a feudal order it was land ownership which determined who was, and wasn’t, fully human, entitled to all the foundational rights of civilization. The distinctions that mattered in early colonial Virginia were the distinctions that mattered in England, a hierarchy of landholders, then merchants, then servants who carried the status of peasants. Race carried little meaning and intermarriage was common enough to be barely noted.
Rising to land ownership in 17th century England was almost impossible, so this offer of land carried significant weight for potential British colonists. Right off the ship from Angola, Anthony Johnson was incorporated into this system, like any other indentured arrival.
Johnson’s indenture appears to have ended after 1632, and he quickly grew prosperous. By the 1650’s Johnson’s family owned more than 750 acres on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, a situation that seemed barely worthy of note. The family owned five indentured servants of their own, four of whom were white. The Black servant, John Casor, we know was held as a servant for life, though we don’t know why. Life servitude was a penalty which could be imposed at the time, though almost always for a crime. This would change gradually by the end of the century.
Our first hint at separate treatment based on African origin comes from a Virginia court case in 1640. Three indentured servants, one Black and two white, fled their contract attempting to reach the neighboring Maryland colony. They were caught. The two white men were punished with additional time on their service contracts while the Black man, John Punch, was sentenced to lifetime servitude. There’s no explanation in the court decision for Punch’s more severe sentence, suggesting it was related to his origins.
Fun fact about Punch. At the time of this case, he was already married to a white woman. Some of his descendants, who were all free, would move west and become identified as white. Others would migrate to the Carolinas and live in the Black community. His offspring included Nobel Prize winner Ralph Bunche and a white woman named Ann Dunham, the mother of Barack Obama. There’s nothing remotely immutable about race. It took time for our concept of race to evolve out of a set of economic demands.
A Virginia law enacted in 1662 marks the first clear effort to associate blackness with servitude.
Whereas some doubts have arisen whether children got by any Englishman upon a negro woman should be slave or free, Be it therefore enacted and declared by this present grand assembly, that all children born in this country shal[l be] held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother.
Across the 1670s and 80s new laws were passed in Virginia with language that implied the enslaved status of “negroes,” including a 1680 law severely punishing “any Negro [who] lift up his hand against any Christian.”
Then in 1705, Virginia’s new slave codes sealed the status of new African arrivals as property, perpetually.
All servants imported and brought into the Country…who were not Christians in their native Country…shall be accounted and be slaves. All Negro, mulatto and Indian slaves within this dominion…shall be held to be real estate. If any slave resist his master…correcting such slave, and shall happen to be killed in such correction…the master shall be free of all punishment…as if such accident never happened.
Once Virginia made official its commitment to Caribbean-style race slavery, the rest of the colonies were forced to face the matter directly. All embraced race-based chattel slavery, at least until the years leading up to the American Revolution. The practice spread most widely in the Southern states, where the climate and geography favored Caribbean plantation agriculture. Race, as a concept, evolved out of economic demands.
Abolitionist sentiment spread widely during the Revolution. Northern states, where Caribbean agriculture was impossible, moved first and farthest. Vermont abolished slavery in 1777. Between 1764 and the establishment of Independence, Massachusetts courts, still following English legal precedent, awarded many slaves their freedom in court cases. Massachusetts never passed a law banning slavery prior to the 13th Amendment, but by 1790 there were no slaves remaining in the state. By 1804, every state north of Maryland had abolished slavery.
Abolition did not bring basic human rights. Most Northern states retained their Black codes, which in many states banned interracial marriage and voting, and in Connecticut barred Blacks from owning property. Repression of Blacks in the “free” states was intense. The US’s first immigration law, the Naturalization Act of 1790, specifically barred Blacks from becoming citizens, limiting naturalization to “free white persons.” Rejection of slavery in the northern states did nothing to tamp down hostility toward Black Americans there. By Reconstruction, white supremacy was firmly established in law and practice as the glue holding our democracy together.
Why did this connection between African heritage and slavery develop in Colonial North America? Duke professor of History, Peter Wood, perhaps summarizes the matter best:
One of the things that goes into that, I think, is the absence of feedback within the transatlantic slave system. For the Europeans who came to the new world, they had constant feedback to the old world: they could send letters, they could return home. The reputation of a given colony like Virginia or South Carolina or New York could be established and was something that was known about. For the Africans, the situation is completely different. If I’m an African brought to Virginia, brutally mistreated, there’s no way that that negative feedback can return home to alert my relatives of the problem. And that lack of communication means that the exploitation can continue.
So here’s a group of people who were isolated from their old world roots, compared to the Europeans. That means they can be exploited more extensively. And there are plenty of people willing and able to do that. And the first exploitation is to extend the terms of servitude. You’re going to serve for life — I may have told you you were going to serve for fifteen years, but I’m going to tear that up and there’s nothing you can do about it. And so, to suddenly find themselves involved in lifelong servitude, and then to realize that in fact their children might inherit the same status, that was a terrible blow — I call it the terrible transformation. I mean, there is a shift that takes place in the second half of the seventeenth century, from a situation where exploitation is based more on religion to a situation by the end of the century where race has become the determining factor.
An additional factor to consider is the power of a visual distinction. Line up twenty Virginia colonists in, say, 1680, and you might have trouble quickly distinguishing an indentured servant from a free laborer. Once African features came to be defined as the mark of servitude, it was easier to quickly identify a person as a slave. This made enforcement simpler and impressed on everyone in the system the potential penalties of trespassing those newly invented racial boundaries.
With a powerful set of economic incentives in place, the rewards for stripping the basic human rights of kidnapped Africans fed a conveyor belt of oppression. However, there remained the challenge of justifying this horror. With the benefits of slavery concentrated from the beginning in few hands, maintaining this profitable system required more than threats. Race slavery needed a mythological foundation, a narrative system that would ensure its support among the broader population. Contrary to popular belief, this foundation never quite coalesced. Whiteness, as a unifying mythology, developed much more slowly than blackness.
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America Before White Supremacy: Anglo-Saxonism in the North
Cavalier Mythology in the Antebellum South
How White Supremacy Took Shape: Violence, Money, Pseudoscience and Art
White Violence Defined the Threat Landscape
How Northern Industrialists Scuttled Reconstruction
Science in Service of White Empire
Artists Packaged White Supremacy
There’s No “Us” in “California”: A Glimpse At Post-Racial America
Wokeness Is Missing a “Theory of Us.” That’s OK.
Building Blocks of a Unifying Mythology