1: The Terrible Transformation

Anthony Johnson and the relatively comfortable position of slaves in early America.


Episode Notes

Slavery in America started out pretty bad in the 17th century. White colonists made it way, way worse in the 18th. What made this “terrible transformation” possible? In Episode 1 of the History of American Slavery, hosts Rebecca Onion and Jamelle Bouie explore how hereditary, race-based slavery took shape in colonial America. They begin their discussion by remembering the life of Anthony Johnson (1600?–70).

Our guests this episode are:

Ira Berlin, distinguished university professor at the University of Maryland and the author of Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Read an excerpt.

Peter Wood, professor emeritus at Duke University and the author of Strange New Land: African Americans, 1526–1776. Read an excerpt.

Who was Anthony Johnson?

We don’t know where Anthony Johnson was born, or how he came to end up enslaved.
We do know he arrived in Virginia in 1621, coming in on a ship called the James. His name was inscribed in the colony’s records as “Antonio, a Negro.” He survived an attack by Powhatan Indians in 1622, as the natives attacked many of Jamestown’s outlying settlements in an attempt to drive out the colonists.

In 1625, he was one of only about two dozen Africans in all of Virginia. He worked on a tobacco plantation owned by Edward Bennett, an absentee master who was a major investor in the Virginia Company. But Johnson’s life on that plantation was very different than what you might think of when you think of what slavery looks like. At least some of the men Johnson worked with were white Europeans who had financed their emigration by entering contracts of indentured servitude—which was a common practice at the time.

Johnson’s master permitted Johnson to wed his wife Mary, described in colony records as “a Negro Woman.” Anthony and Mary were allowed to farm independently while still enslaved, and eventually to buy their freedom with proceeds from their labor, which happened sometime before 1647.

Then Anthony Johnson bought a farm near the tip of the Delmarva Peninsula through The Virginia Colony’s headright system. That meant that in exchange for a land grant of 250 acres, Johnson financed the indenture and immigration of 5 men.
Upon arriving in Virginia these men became Johnson’s indentured property. In 1653, when John Casor, one of the Johnson family’s enslaved laborers, escaped to a neighboring plantation, Johnson contested Casor’s claim that his indenture was over. He sued for Casor’s return, arguing that John Casor was his slave for life. Johnson won his case.

This wasn’t the Johnson family’s only recognition from the local court system. By the 1650s, Anthony’s two sons owned large farms adjoining their parents’ land, of 550 and 100 acres. The Johnson children fought—and won!—land disputes with white neighbors. And when Anthony suffered the effects of a disastrous fire in 1653, he asked for tax relief from the county court. In his petition he reminded the court of his and his wife’s status in the community, writing, in the third person, “Their hard labors and knowne services for obtayneing their livelihood were well known.” The court agreed; Johnson received the tax relief he was looking for. By the standards of the time, Johnson and his family were wealthy and influential.

But times were changing. Indentured servitude was transforming into slavery as we think of it today: hereditary and race-based. When Anthony Johnson died in 1670, a white planter successfully challenged his will, which left 50 acres of property in Accomack county to his son Richard—because Johnson was a negro, and by consequence, an alien.

Supplementary reading:

• Should we call the victims of slavery “slaves” or “enslaved people”? Katy Waldman looks at a debate that’s anything but academic.


About the Show

With the help of acclaimed historians and writers, Rebecca Onion and Jamelle Bouie explore the history of American slavery and examine how the institution came to shape our country’s politics, economy, and culture.

Don’t miss Rebecca and Jamelle’s follow-up podcast, Reconstruction.

This series was made possible by Slate Plus members. To help Slate make more projects like this, become a member now.

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