July 05, 2019 By Lyn Kelly
When you hear or read the term ‘slavery’, the first thing that would readily pop into your mind is a black man being abused and used by white man. After all, this is the battle cry of the black community whenever they likened racism to slavery. While this may be true of most slave cases, do you know that the first legally recognized slaveholder in America was not a white but a black man?
A servant who became the master
Anthony Johnson was one of the first indentured servants who came to Virginia in 1619. The concept of ‘indentured servants’ was a concept introduced by the administrators of Virginia so that those without money can enter the New World by providing free labor to their benefactor who paid for their entry. Indentured servants will only work for a set period of time and they will be free afterward.
Anthony worked out his indenture period and together with his wife Mary, bought their way out of bondage. Anthony was fortunate enough to eventually acquire his own land. A former indentured servant having his own land was practically non-existent during that time. Since he and his wife were no strangers to hard work they were able to successfully grow their livestock and livelihood. By the 1650s their property had grown to 250 acres, a rare feat for an ex-servant.
Considering that Anthony owned his own plantation, he employed five Africans as indentured servants and one of them was John Casor. John completed his servant-period by laboring for seven years without pay. However, when John asked Anthony for his freedom, the ex-servant-turned-freeman (and then owner himself) refused.
Anthony eventually sent Casor to a white colonist named Robert Parker but immediately regretted his decision. To get John back, Anthony filed a case before the County Court of Northampton County, Virginia charging Parker for taking his servant and asserting that John should be his servant for life.
The court ruled in favor of Anthony on March 8, 1655. John was returned to Anthony and became the first man in American history to be legally classified as a lifelong slave. Anthony, on the other hand, became the first legally recognized slaveholder in America.
The fascinating story of Anthony Johnson, the black man who was the first to own a slave in the U.S.
The history of slavery in the Americas has always been marred by its deep racial past.
So much so that stories like those of Anthony Johnson, a black man who was the first person to legally own a slave in the U.S. is little known or studied.
But Johnson’s story changed the course of American history.
According to historians Charles Johnson and Patricia Smith, in 1622, an enslaved African named Anthonio appeared in the historical record. It is believed that Johnson arrived in Virginia in 1621, captured in Angola and put on the ship, James. Early records listed him as “Antonio, a Negro” servant, because Virginia had no rules for slaves at the time.
Johnson and Smith explain the Virginia system of the time:
“Both African slaves and European indentured servants labored in Virginia in the 1620s. Indentured servants agreed to work for a planter for a specific period of time in exchange for their passage to the New World, and then they usually became free. Slaves were forced to come to North America, but in the seventeenth century they were also often able to earn their freedom. Both indentured servants and slaves often labored in Virginia tobacco fields side by side and were subject to the same treatment, often cruel, by planters for whom they worked.”
Historians at Wesleyan University note further on the times,
Slaves, usually captured and sold by other African tribes, were transported across the Atlantic to the Americas. Around 11 million people were transported from 1500 to 1850, mostly to Brazil and the Caribbean islands. If they arrived in America, originally they became indentured servants; if they arrived elsewhere, they became slaves.
Blackpast.org note that “Antonio the Negro” worked on the tobacco plantation of Edward Bennett near Warresquioake, Virginia. He married “Mary a Negro woman” who had sailed to the New World aboard the Margrett and John. In March of 1622, local Tidewater Indians attacked the plantation leaving Johnson, one of only five survivors, on the plantation and fifty-two people killed.
Sometime between 1622 and 1641, “Antonio the Negro” became landowner Anthony Johnson. It is not known how or when the Johnsons became free or owned land but a man identified as “Anthony the Negro” stated in court records, “Now I know myne owne ground and I will work when I please and play when I please” in 1645.
The Johnsons are believed to have owned 250 acres of land along the Pungoteague Creek on the eastern shore of Virginia by 1650. They acquired the land through the headright system, which allowed planters to claim acreage for each servant brought to the colony, Anthony claimed five headrights, one in the name of his son, Richard Johnson, and the rest believed to have been men he imported.
Court records in 1641 also indicate that Anthony was master to a black servant, John Casor. Casor would become the first person to be ‘arbitrarily declared‘ a slave for life in the U.S. in a 1655 court case. Anthony’s neighbor and white planter, Robert Parker, had momentarily secured Casor’s freedom after he had convinced Parker and his brother George that he was an illegally detained indentured servant.
But Anthony fought to retain ownership of Castor in a lengthy court battle and he won. John Punch, an African, was declared a slave for life as punishment for trying to escape his indentured servitude in an earlier case but Casor was the first to be declared a slave for life as the result of a civil suit.
The Smithsonian Magazine, writing on The Horrible Fate of John Casor, The First Black Man to be Declared Slave for Life in America say:
“That’s what happened to the holder of Casor’s indenture, Anthony Johnson. Johnson served out his contract and went on to run his own tobacco farm and hold his own indentured servants, among them Casor. At this time, the colony of Virginia had very few black people in it: Johnson was one of the original 20.
After a disagreement about whether or not Casor’s contract has lapsed, a court ruled in favor of Johnson and Casor saw the status of his indenture turn into slavery, where he—not his contract—was considered property. Casor claimed that he had served his indenture of “seven or eight years” and seven more years on top of that. The court sided with Johnson, who claimed that Casor was his slave for life.”
Johnson’s court demand to keep Casor for life would change the course of American history. According to historians at Wesleyan University,
About seven years later, Virginia made this practice legal for everyone, in 1661, by making it state law for any free white, black or Indian to be able to own slaves, along with indentured servants. The step from there to a racialized idea of slavery wasn’t a huge one.
Johnson died in 1670. In August of the same year, an all-white jury ruled that “Anthony’s original land in Virginia could be seized [from his surviving family] by the state “because he was a Negroe and by consequence an alien.”
Fifty acres that Anthony had given to his son, Richard, ended up in the hands of his white neighbor, George Parker.
Unfortunately, there is no other information about the whereabouts or later history of the Johnsons. Historians say that by 1730, the Johnson family had vanished from the historical records.
Anthony Johnson (?-1670)
Posted on December 14, 2010, by contributed by: Deborah McNally Anthony Johnson’s Virginia and Maryland: map of colonia settlement by 1700
Anthony Johnson was the first prominent black landholder in the English colonies. Johnson arrived in Virginia in 1621 aboard the James. It is uncertain if Johnson arrived as an indentured servant or as a slave, early records list him as “Antonio, a Negro.” Regardless of his status, Johnson was bound to labor and was put to work on Edward Bennett’s tobacco plantation near Warresquioake, Virginia. In March of 1622 local Tidewater Indians attacked Bennett’s plantation, killing fifty-two people. Johnson was one of only five on the plantation who survived the attack.
In 1622 “Mary, a Negro Woman” arrived aboard the Margrett and John and like Anthony, she ended up on Bennett’s plantation. At some point Anthony and Mary were married; a 1653 Northampton County court document lists Mary as Anthony’s wife. It was a prosperous and enduring union that lasted over forty years and produced at least four children including two sons and two daughters. The couple was respected in their community for their “hard labor and known service,” according to court documents.
At some point between 1625 and 1640, Anthony and Mary gained their freedom and moved to Virginia’s Eastern Shore where they purchased a modest estate. They began raising cattle and hogs and by 1651, Johnson claimed 250 acres of land along Pungoteague Creek. He claimed the land by virtue of five headrights, one of which was in the name of his son, Richard Johnson. It is impossible to know if Anthony imported the other men whose names appear on the headright land claims, but it is possible that he did. It is also possible that he purchased headright certificates from other planters. Either way, 250 acres was a sizeable plantation by the standards of the day. By 1654 Johnson’s two sons, Richard and John, both owned acreage adjoining their father’s land.
In addition to being a landowner, Anthony Johnson was also a slaveholder. Court records reveal that Johnson won a 1655 case against white planter, Robert Parker, to retain ownership of Johnson’s slave, John Casor. Casor, with the help of Robert Parker, tried to claim that he was an indentured servant, not a slave. Although the courts initially found in Parker’s favor, temporarily freeing Casor, they subsequently reversed the decision, returning Casor to the service of his master, Anthony Johnson.
A fire in 1653 destroyed much of Johnson’s plantation. As a result of the fire, Anthony and Mary petitioned the court for tax relief, which was granted on the grounds that they would have difficulty obtaining a livelihood. Sometime in the 1660s Anthony and Mary Johnson, their dependent children, and their married sons, John and Richard, all moved north into Maryland. In Maryland, Anthony leased a 300-acre farm, Tonies Vineyard, where he lived until his death in 1670. Mary survived her husband, and in 1672 will she bequeathed a cow to each of her grandsons. Five years later, in 1677, Anthony and Mary’s grandson, John Jr., purchased a 44-acre farm which he named Angola. John Jr. later died without leaving an heir, however, and by 1730, the Johnson family had vanished from the historical records.